The recent talks between the TUV and UUP along with the previous discussions with the Conservative party about a possible merger elicited a very sharp response from Edwin Poots as Mick has noted below. It was one of the best comments I have heard from Poots in a long time. Incidentally I am a fan of Edwin Pootss pin striped suits. I have a couple but Elenwe is a bit dubious about anything other than the most subtle of pin striping. However, it did set me thinking about why the UUP are trying to look in so many different directions. I will come back to suits at the end.
The answer is actually pretty obvious and itself illustrates one of the enormous problems that the UUP faces if it wishes to advance, let alone ever regain top spot within unionism; a feat I suspect is beyond it.
To understand why the UUP are trying to reach in several directions practically at once one must remember where they came from. Remember that the UUP was once the only unionist party. More importantly until only a few years ago it was much the largest unionist party. The DUP had only Paisley, Robinson and Willie McCrea. All the other MPs were UUP. They of course included a very broad spectrum of unionist opinion, if one includes the MLAs etc. it was even broader. It simultaneously contained on one end the likes of Duncan Shipley Dalton (Duncan if you are reading I hope you do not mind being described as on the liberal wing) and Willie Thompson and Willie Ross, neither of whom were exactly liberal or pro agreement. Indeed I remember one member of the UUP commenting on Gregory Campbells defeat of Willie Ross in East Londonderry that the more liberal unionist had won.
Such was the remarkably broad (and at the time successful) coalition which the UUP was that David Trimble was elected by the hardliners on that September night (I remember, I was there) and then ended up being supported by the liberal wing of the party whilst the hard liners tried repeatedly to remove him.
Of course since the leadership and membership of the party was extremely diverse in political viewpoints (something Jim Molyneaux frequently boasted of) it makes sense that the supporters were as well. Therein of course lay the UUPs power base but also therein lies the cause of its current difficulties.
The UUP still wishes to get back to the position of the majority unionist party. However, it has lost votes in a number of directions and as such is trying to look to regain votes in a number of directions. There is nothing wrong with such an approach per se but it tends to result in them appearing to shift in multiple directions at the same time.
Many within the UUP correctly identify that the majority of the lost voters have jumped ship to the DUP. As such to be DUPish would seem a good way to get them back, except of course a number of ex-UUP leaders are in the DUP which will help to keep those voters. Then there are some ex-UUP types who have gone all the way to the TUV, directly or via the DUP. Hence, talks with the TUV make sense if one is trying to win their support.
Against that of course there is the vote which the UUP has lost to Alliance. This is actually a much smaller number of votes but it is centred on the UUP current relative power base of the Pale (greater Belfast). As such it might make sense to appeal to a liberal, largely middle class urban elite. Some of these people will no doubt be quite attracted to the Conservative party of David Cameron and as such talking of uniting with them may help.
Then of course many UUP members are obsessed with the garden centre Prod vote. I heard this at the slugger awards: a very worthy UUP member pointing out that a very large number of people do not vote. There is often an assumption that these people are predominantly unionist in outlook. There is also often an assumption that they are rather liberal unionists and as such by becoming more liberal the UUP could attract them. I suspect that those assumptions are of progressively decreasing likelihood. Most garden centre types may be unionist (be they Protestant or Roman Catholic). However, a number may actually be hard line unionists; some may support complete integration (once a pretty popular unionist position). Finally some of these voters just may not care and may not vote under any circumstances.
As such the UUP is trying to appeal in many different directions simultaneously. Once it was a coalition of unionists with very differing views. A large number of those people (both leaders, members and supporters) have moved elsewhere. However, they have not moved in one specific direction and winning them back is not a case of moving to the right or left.
The UUP are not helped by the fact that they feel that the DUP have stolen much of their clothes and have become a pro agreement party. The UUP can feel bitter about that but feeling bitter does not get those votes back. In addition the fact that the DUP have been a bit more successful in extracting some concessions from SF simply adds insult to injury. Rather than having stolen the UUPs suit of clothes the DUP have purchased very similar ones. However, the DUPs suit is more Paul Smith to the UUPs Marks and Spencer and once people have started buying expensive suits they are less inclined to go back to cheaper ones.