Tories’ best opportunity since 1992…

In the Newsletter today, Alex Kane lays out what he sees as the opportunities and the blocks to future Conservative success in Northern Ireland. Though he clearly scotches any notion of him returning the party of which he was once a key member. He believes the efficacy of the so-called ‘Cameron factor’ may play a crucial role in its long term quest to become a serious local player in Northern Ireland.

Update: Iain Dale adds his thoughts. One to watch for mainstream Tory opinion!By Alex Kane

At around the same time that David Ervine—a self-confessed member of the armed, active, terrorist, criminal and illegal UVF—was addressing Young Unionists in Cunningham House, the news broke that the thoroughly democratic James Leslie was defecting to the Conservative Party. There is no particular link between the two events, other than that they demonstrate what is happening at either end of the party.

James telephoned me last weekend to tell me of his move and I expressed my genuine sorrow. I first got to know him when he was an MLA for North Antrim and realised, fairly quickly, that he was one of the most able and talented members of the UUP. Of course the party will survive without him; but his departure is a real loss and I regret the fact that he has taken his expertise and abilities elsewhere. That said I wish him well. The manner of his going, without rancour and without criticism of the UUP or its’ leadership, is typical of the man.

For the Conservatives here, it is another welcome publicity blip, a signal that they can still attract political talent. But does it amount to much more than that, or can they break free from their minnow status and emerge as a major player in Northern Ireland politics? This is probably their best opportunity since the 1992 General Election to claw back some credibility, but, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, much will depend upon the “Cameron factor.”

Local Conservatives, since they were accorded official recognition in 1989, have been dogged with two problems. The first was the legacy of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Put bluntly, the vast majority of the pro-Union community blamed the Conservative Government and Mrs. Thatcher in particular, for expanding and bolstering the so-called Irish Dimension. Memories are long in local politics and in 1992 the Agreement still rankled with too many potential voters. But it is now over twenty years since that Agreement and a new voting generation has no particular memory of it or of Mrs. Thatcher.

The other problem was the very clear lack of effective support from the party leadership or Central Office. In 1992 a visit or two from John Major, to explicitly endorse the local Conservatives, might have made a difference in North Down. But at that stage Major was looking at the possibility of a hung parliament, in which case he would have found himself relying on support from the Ulster Unionists (in the days when they had 9 or 10 seats!). So he didn’t offer much in the way of electoral support to his own candidates.

And after the election, when he only had a majority of 24, he did need to keep good links with the UUP in Westminster; which meant that the fate of the local Conservatives was way down his list of priorities. So way down, in fact, that he did everything he could (under pressure from the UUP) to stop them contesting the 1996 Forum elections.

So, if the Conservatives are to make a breakthrough this time, they need David Cameron to come over and make a major set-piece speech in which he gives clear and unambiguous support to the Union and to his own candidates. And he needs to provide the funding for them to contest every seat at the elections for the Assembly (if there is one), the super councils and Westminster. There are seats to be won for the party, but only in a Province-wide campaign in which the Conservative hierarchy is seen on the streets and on the doorstep.

The problem, yet again, is that Cameron may also be looking at a hung parliament, in which he would need the support of the 9 or 10 DUP MPs. That being a possibility, is he likely to encourage his own candidates in seats where a further division within the pro-Union electorate could cause real problems? I regard Cameron as flaky on just about everything and I don’t expect Northern Ireland, or the fate of his local colleagues, to be exceptions to the rule.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 23rd September 2006.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • slug

    A good piece – quite agree with him that the commitment of Cameron to the local conservatives will be important (although to this end Cameron came to visit Belfast very early on after taking over).

    Also agree that they will want to keep open possibilities of arrangements with the DUP. However, I think that there are relatively few NI electoral contests in which this would be a consideration. In fact the Conservatives standing in North Down and South Belfast might well help the DUP as I would expect they take votes more from UUP types than DUP types.

    Thats twice in a short space of time that Alex has written articles that are not thoroughly gloomy. Well done!

  • dub

    this article says everything that needs to be said about “mainland” parties organising in ni… which was discussed on “no irish need apply” thread.

    alex makes i absolutely collossal mistake here: he asks that Cameron come over and declare himself pro-union: does he not realise that tories are not unionists any more and that locally they are trying to break free of this indentification.. they want “national” (i.e. GB) politics here but without being seen to endorse the politics of one community over another…a tricky one… that’s why they will remain an idealist minority… cameron is not going to come over here and say such a thing..

    second… why should tories put in all the investment needed to run candidates in every contest in the north… they do not want to enter the sectarian flea pit, they will not want to alienate the iriah govt and they will not want to undermine the gfa…

    so just carry on wishing.. the brits are not going to rescue you from the sectarian prison they created for people in 6 counties by setting up the statelet in the first place…

  • Brenda

    Now the tories, and labour, as well as FF all want to organise here now!!!

    LOL feast or famine.

  • Crataegus


    I don’t know about you but I prefer feasts.

  • slug


    No feast, but at least a small portion to eat:

    Labour YES to setting up branches in NI

    It’s as I guessed – at this stage organizing associations but no election contesting.

  • Crataegus


    Thanks small but useful step in the right direction

  • Frustrated Democrat


    The Tories are in fact a unionist party (note the small ‘u’) since they believe that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should remain intact.

    They are however not a Unionist party in the sense of the DUP or the UUP.

    I can see a problem for the SDLP who could lose voters to the Conservatives if they organise across NI. The type of voter I refer to is one who prefers to remain within the UK but would not vote Alliance or for mainstream Unionism but currently votes for the SDLP to register a vote against SF. There are a lot of Catholic Tories out there so SDLP beware.

    The same also applies to the UUP and to some extent the DUP as there are many potential Tory voers in their ranks especially those ex UUP voters who swithced to the DUP at the last election.

    The Tories have a major opportunity to garner votes across the spectrum if they can get the right mix of candidates and backing across all constituencies.

  • Crataegus

    Frustrated Democrat

    There is no doubt in my mind that with the right candidates and a lot of solid ground work in targeted constituencies that the Conservatives could do very well in some parts, but locally they would really need to get their act together. Get the candidates in place and get out on the doorstep. It is a once in a life time opportunity, if you have any success the UUP will probably implode.

    I agree that in certain constituencies SDLP is not the natural home for some who currently vote that way. I have some neighbours who would vote SDLP and frankly they are as Conservative as you get. They vote SDLP because who else id there for them to vote for?

    The Conservative Party here would have to be seen as a viable alternative and it is up to them to see that that happens. The future is very much in their own hands.

  • Having seemingly avoided local politics for a number of weeks Alex returns with a very good article.
    He focuses on the two keys issues:
    a. The support of the Conservative leadership
    b. The position of the DUP

    To deal with the latter first. If there is strongly contested General Election campaign by the Tory Party are we to believe that the DUP will in some way hold this against Cameron and Conservatives? I suspect Doc Paisley et al would actually welcome a Conservative campaign in the short term as initially it will soak up UUP, Alliance, SDLP and non voters more than DUP ones.
    If Cameron needs support of other parties he will make pragmatic decisions. He might need the Lib Dems but noone is suggesting the Party doesnt contest elections for example in SW England.

    With regard to the support of the Party leadership – we have it pure and simple. Political developments and long term internal lobbying have delivered it. The extent to which Cameron invests in that position will depend on whether people in NI respond to that call – or sit waiting for the leadership to prove its bona fides.

  • Garibaldy

    What SDLP voters do you expect to go to the Tories? I can only assume you mean people who vote for them who aren’t nationalists, perhaps in a tactical way to stop another party. Because no nationalist is going to vote for the Tories over the SDLP.

  • Crataegus


    Not all who vote SDLP are Nationalists! How does someone who is catholic and say a senior civil servant or judge or business person vote?

    Also there are many who find themselves in the position that there is no one to vote for. I vote for any stray dog that comes along.

    You could see the Conservatives doing well in places like North Down, perhaps Lagan Valley, Strangford, South Belfast, but for them to move forward they would need to be one hell of a lot more focussed than they are at present. Votes are on the doorsteps not cyberspace.

    I would welcome anything that starts to break up the current political monoliths.

  • slug

    I think the suggestion by someone on Iain Dales blog that the Conservatives – when selecting candidates – take the same approach to religion in NI as they would to gender and race in GB may have some merit; in both places they want to reflect the ethnic/religious mix of society as best they can.

  • Garibaldy


    I agree that not all SDLP voters are nationalists. I think my last post referred to them. But I’m not sure how significant they are. And if they are in areas where such voters see themselves as key to keeping others out, why then switch to the Tories as this would reduce the chances of keeping others out?

    Normal politics yes, but preferably through our own parties.

  • Crataegus


    Sometimes you have to bring down the towers before you can rebuild.

  • Garibaldy


    I’d like nothing better than to see the big four here collapse, and their total inability and apathy about bread and butter issues offers the best way for that. I just don’t think that either Labour or the Tories offer the best way of building a real alternative based on social and economic issues.

  • Frustrated Democrat


    I am not a Tory member just ex UUP and future Tory voter. I think there may be a lot of us following the unfortunate dalliance with Ervine and the UVF and the non leadership of Empey

  • Er Indoors

    Just a quick note to Crat, as I’m catching up here – I totally agree that the votes are on the doorsteps, not in cyberspace, and whilst I would like to see a blanket canvass in NI, the footsoldiers are a bit thin on the ground, and you do need to be focused and thick skinned to do the job. Also, rumour has it that voters fib just to get you off their doorstep here.

  • darth rumsfeld

    I went out and bought a Snooze Letter in anticipation of a bombshell in Alex’s column on Mick’s trail on another thread. Is this it?????!!!!

  • Elvis Parker

    So in 1996 John Major – who desperately needed UUP support ‘did everything he could (under pressure from the UUP) to stop them contesting the 1996 Forum elections.’
    Now in 2006 Cameron says he wants members and votes in NI.
    A dramatic change

  • Elvis Parker

    a dramatic change indeed- in the fortunes of the UUP.

    Also remember their sole MP has impressed the Tories to date with an almost slavish devotion to the government lobby.