It appears that everyone has an opinion on the link up between the Conservative party and the UUP. It may represent a frame shift in the DNA of local politics. However, we have had momentous changes redefining politics in Northern Ireland on a number of previous occasions. The Alliance party broke the mould and changed voting forever (well I guess that is true in a very small measure within the Pale: I still await the sight of an Alliance canvasser in Fermanagh or South Londonderry). Unionist parties have come and gone, a number of them having purported to be seeking Catholic unionist votes. On a different note the Women’s Coalition was going to change politics here.
If the new party has success, I as a unionist, will be pleased as it may well increase the total pro-union vote. Actually I will be even less likely to vote UUP than I was before for the simple reason that had a been in GB I would probably have voted Labour in the majority of previous elections: being a hard line unionist does not automatically make one a dyed in the wool right winger. That problem also of course works in reverse: some right of centre Catholics, especially those within the Pale may well be attracted to the UUP (there are, however, problems which I will return to later). However, for those gained there may also be some trendy lefty Protestant types who drift off to the Alliance or indeed to the garden centres.
I have previously discussed the problem that the UUP is trying to reunite what was once a very broad base of party support and that problem remains enormous. At the moment Reg seems to be on a quest to redefine unionism and appeal to assorted garden centre types and liberals within the Pale. Although he may soon go back to trying pleasing those of us where there be dragons (west of the Bann), the suggestion that the shiny new Tory / UUP axis will fight every seat will play poorly out here. I do not wish to be condescending but sometimes I really do wonder what level of understanding of the concerns of West of the Bann unionists some within the UUP hierarchy have, let alone the likes of Owen Paterson the Tory NI spokesperson. Just for the record what is wrong with a united candidate to try (even if in vain) to evict an MP who does not sit in Westminster, believes that a future generation of republicans may have to go back to violence and cannot support people going to the police about criminal activity within her constituency? It appears that the likes of Owen Paterson regard trying to remove such a person as bigoted. I await the UUP’s attempt to explain this to those of us represented at Westminster by Mrs. Gildernew but unless the UUP disowns Paterson’s position I suspect this idea will do them considerable harm. It is also worth noting with regard to attempts to remove Gildernew as non-MP for F/ST that Labour and the Liberal Democrats stood aside to get Neil Hamilton out for less, and that Alliance has stood aside in the past in relatively similar circumstances.
Many others have analysed why David Cameron has become involved in this semi link up; the motives ascribed are cynical to varying degrees which I will not dwell on here save to remind people that David Cameron the new liberal Tory was also previously David Cameron the hard line Conservative and is not exactly adverse to sudden changes in policy.
Leaving aside the problems with the link up and the issues created by the UUP’s new best friends; not so much the elephant as the Argentinosaurus in the room is Reg’s leadership (I use that term in its loosest sense) of the UUP. Reg has been a singularly uninspiring leader. His predecessor on the other hand was fairly inspiring to some, unfortunately only briefly to those within the Northern Ireland electorate, but quite inspiring to many people on the international stage who did not actually get votes in NI elections. Trimble was, however, so talented that he also managed to find the time to retreat from every final political line in the sand he ever drew and of course successfully destroy a political party. It is also worth noting that very, very few Catholic unionist votes seemed to come riding to his rescue in 2001. As such exactly why they will be flocking to Reg’s new model army is an interesting question: not an impossibility, “the times they are a changing”, but I fear that the certainity that they have changed that much may end up at the next election …disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
In trying to achieve what Trimble failed to do and expand the UUP tent leftwards, Reg is also hampered by some baggage of his won. Firstly it must be remembered that in the dying days of the Trimble leadership, Reg refused to give his leader complete support against those nasty members of the UUP who were objecting to the endless concessions so lauded by the outside world as flexibility. In addition, long ago when David Cameron was but a boy, Reg was involved in the Vanguard Unionist Party (just as Trimble was). Nothing wrong with that per se maybe but it seems more likely to appeal to a more hard line unionist position than the new cuddly image that he and Cameron wish to project for the UUP. It is also a fact I suspect Alliance and anyone else faintly worried by the prospect of a UUP move to the left will exploit mercilessly.
In one of its other objectives, however, this new shiny link up has achieved its aim perfectly. It has of course saved Reg’s bacon for another conference. I am afraid that Reg always reminds me of Edgar Linton from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: pretty decent and honest but completely ineffectual in the face of his opponents. Whilst voters may feel that Reg is a decent sort of chap, the overwhelming majority seem happier with Heathcliff (in this analogy in the shape of Peter Robinson, though I am not going to suggest that this makes Arlene Foster Cathy). Okay here is a link to Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights.
Of course the other salvation for Reg is that the rest of his party leaders (and as such any potential challengers) are pretty ineffectual as well and that there is a singular lack of any credible alternative leader. No Heathcliffs lurking amongst them: except maybe McNarry but I am afraid his ruthlessness is successfully scuppered by his lack of personal popularity within the party (or outside). I suppose David Burnside could be nominated as almost sufficiently cunning; his cunning plans, however, tend to remind me of Baldrick’s. This lack of credible alternatives may make Reg’s position secure but also demonstrates a further problem for the UUP in its quest to regain political power. None of its senior leadership cadre have any major popularity amongst the electorate and along with popular policies and a shiny new image a political party needs credible politicians if it wants any realistic prospect of success. One can go through constituency after constituency but with the possible exception of North Down, not one has a UUP politician who can realistically challenge the DUP leading local member in terms of popularity.
I have also previously alluded to the unlikeness of any young Tories from England (or Wales or Scotland) coming over to stand for the UUP. In the most unlikely event of any of them trying such a thing, I suspect it would result in a massacre worse than the one which befell the likes of Gareth McGimpsey in Strangford in 2005. I am again reminded of Martina Purdy’s withering assessment that far from being the Young Turks the like of Gareth McGimpsey were actually Lambs to the Slaughter (and unlike local pigs they did not even get a temporary reprieve).
I am sure that Alex Kane, Michael Shilliday and many other UUP members left the conference with a spring in their step. However, although I respect their political analyses and like those whom I know, I suspect that any confidence they may hold regarding a sudden turn of political fortunes to their advantage seems very unlikely to be realistic. Remember “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.” What happened last week was not so much deck chair rearrangement on the Titanic as Reg making it to a lifeboat and knowing that the Carpathia was on her way: good for him but of little use to most of the Titanic’s passengers.