The New Force are of course also in an interesting position. Although they are running Nicholson who seems to have been there since shortly after the end of the Second World War (well actually since 1989) they have gained the addendum of the Tories. The start of the new relationship seemed to be a great hope though I did caution at the time that it was very much a politicos idea and one which I was unsure of the relevance of outside the political anoraks (like us lot) and maybe parts of the Pale. I was also worried by what I call the Stephen King factor, namely bringing in talented, affable young English conservatives with a lack of the depth of knowledge and complete understanding of NI politics which I regard as essential to achieve anything here. There was then the chaos of the name and logo and the discussions around it followed by Jeffrey Peel’s outbursts.
However, all the above is simply more of the stuff of anoraks. Out there in the real world little has changed for the UUP. That may well be a problem as Jim Nicholson’s vote has been progressively falling in Euro elections. In addition the UUP has had a pretty disastrous series of elections over recent years; their more recent attempts to spin Dromore as a victory are gravely hampered by its tiny size and the fact that actually their vote fell.
In Nicholson they have a far from dynamic candidate: he is not maybe as bad as he is at times portrayed but his near invisibility between European elections is undoubtedly a significant handicap. Despite that he was undamaged during the UUPs self destruction strategy (Trimble’s leadership) and he is acknowledged as knowing a fair bit about farming and about European affairs. In addition the lack of charismatic leaders has never done the UUP that much harm. I repeatedly point out how the highly uncharismatic Jim Molyneaux gradually eroded Paisley’s support in all elections except Europe.
There are also some more positive vibes around the UUP. The defeat of the Peel types along with the fact that the coalition with the Tories is still intact does bring a bit of new excitement. In addition if David Cameron or other leading Tories can be brought over to press the flesh that might have some benefit in greater Belfast (no point bringing them to Fermanagh, North Antrim, East Londonderry etc.). The recent spat with the DUP claiming that the UUP / Tories had been involved in the expenses issue was interesting. Although denied by the New Force I must admit that the very idea that the UUP had started to wheel in some Tory spin types was interesting. Whilst the pin stripe suited public school Oxbridge types may know little about NI politics they know a lot about hard political fighting and how to fling the dirt when it is needed. The playing fields of Eton may no longer prepare boys to run the empire but they do make a surprisingly good training ground for very polite, smiling political street fighters. The DUP have had the monopoly on hardness in unionist politics with the exception of rather pathetic camp hardness from the likes of McNarry or Burnside. If the UUP can gain a new hardness from the Tories (the better if it is done with shiny politeness) then they may start to gain. The suggestion of stopping Sinn Fein allowances was a good move on this front. More than anything if the UUP start to believe that the New Force really can achieve something they might gain a bit.
The UUP need to face in several directions at once. They need to point out that they are competent in running their departments. They need to project stability and suggest that the DUP have had to move onto their ground. They need to point up national issues to try to attract liberal non voting unionists (however many there are of those). In the ideal world they might even try to gain a few Roman Catholic unionist votes. Equally they need to face in the opposite direction and suggest that the days of Trimble and push over unionism are long gone; indeed that that was almost a different party. That is especially important in gaining transfers from the TUV if Allister loses; they must be credibly hard enough to attract TUV votes.
I regard this as a very difficult ask. The New Force probably will argue that by shifting the whole paradigm of unionist (and indeed all) Northern Irish politics this can be done. I do not know, I have grave doubts but it is I suppose possible. For the meantime I would submit that a realistic aim would be to loose less votes than the DUP vote and hold their seat. I am sorry if that is not exactly positive but I fear it is more realistic. Yes maybe the New Force dawn is breaking but I am unsure. The only alternative would be if the DUP can be persuaded to self destruct and good as the Tory black propaganda brigade undoubtedly are, I doubt they are that good. Still as I said at the start there are so many variables in play in this election that I suppose anything could happen.