Bring on Colonel Tim to lead a UU charge in East Belfast

Surely the main significance of Peter Robinson’s convoluted comments on double jobbing lies in the prospect of his standing down from his East Belfast Westminster seat after 31 years. He didn’t specifically declare an end to DUP dual mandates for MPs and MLAs as such, only for those of them who were ministers or committee chairs, yet this further move can hardly be long delayed. Most parties are facing the amazing problem of having more seats than they can adequately fill, so the obvious conclusion to draw is- reduce the size of the Assembly. In those days of long ago, by narrowly defeating Bill Craig by only 64 votes in 1979 in the wake of old Vanguard leader’s dramatic switch to supporting a voluntary coalition in 1975, Peter won almost as striking a victory as Paisley’s seizure of North Antrim in 1970, where the opposition had been weaker. No wonder Peter shows signs of hesitation in paying quite a high cost to protect his flank. He must have expected that eventually, opponents would be able seriously to exploit public unease over double jobbing, although there are no serious signs of that yet. Jim Allister jibes by themselves should hardly have been be enough to unsettle him. More plausibly, it was the threat of David Cameron to legislate to end double jobbing that led him to advance the inevitable, in the febrile atmosphere of the expenses crisis. Nonetheless it’s to Peter’s credit that he’s signalling that from now on, developing Assembly government is the main priority. When he makes the split, he should end the DUP practice of rotating ministers before they can master the job; and by the way, remove the erratic Sammy Wilson who hasn’t the temperament to be a successful minister as I’m sure Peter knows. Leave him to sound off on the green backbenches and maybe the blue ones too. Together with the final retirement of Ian Paisley senior, Peter’s move introduces a new fluidity not only into DUP politics but in unionism and NI politics generally. But separating out roles between the developing Assembly and Westminster creates strategic headaches. Priority for the Assembly would seem a no brainer. And yet the impact of a single standard bearer topping the poll in a first- past- the- post election is hard to beat as the ultimate test of popularity and strength. While the DUP are taking a gamble, the Ulster Unionists face by far the bigger challenge. Peter’s departure without a natural successor presents the new Conservative – Ulster Unionist links with the big challenge they were forged to meet. I wonder if it’s not a mite premature for them? Still, in next year’s general election, the “Ulster Conservatives and Unionists- new force” have little choice but to go all out with a “we are the better unionists” battle cry, no doubt with storming endorsement from David Cameron In theory, there are powerful advantages in surfing the Conservative wave and opening up our claustrophobic politics to new ideas and influences. But will it impress the voters? And will Reg run and quit the Assembly? If not Reg, who? Pilot in David Burnside who I’d imagine hankers after a rerun at Westminster? Or is the time now ripe for Colonel Tim Collins to come riding to the rescue? I’m not close enough to the ground to assess the field in East Belfast. In the 2005 Westminster election Peter trounced Reg. At the nadir of UU fortunes in the 2007 Assembly poll, although plumping for Peter was avoided by carefully spreading DUP preferences, Reg suffered humiliation by Alliances’s Naomi Long’s coming in a decent second. For the DUP, I would have guessed that Wallace Browne would have been the strongest DUP runner had he not taken a peerage. I may be unfair, but am I right to have doubts about Robin Newton’s charisma? The UUs have the makings of a new purpose, which is the powerful one of copper-fastening the Union of the Belfast Agreement on a modern Conservative agenda. All they need is a candidate (all?) to give the DUP in transition a run for their money.

P.S. I’ve just had a terrible thought – they wouldn’t dare run one of the Robinson kids – would they?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London