David Camerons article in the Belfast Telegraph underscores the Conservative and Unionist intention to stand in all 18 Westminster constituencies ( I can’t stand that damned, near-obscene acronym). Despite Ed Currans injunction not to lose any sleep over TUV, the hasty end of double jobbing and other little problems, this must throw unionist political calculations into the melting pot. Reg may be basing his confidence on the shifting sands of the Eurovote but its hard not to believe that Camerons tactical pitch is simply to leave no avenue of political advantage unexplored in case forming the next government comes down to a couple of seats. And thats a tall order, in North Down and South Belfast for different reasons. Yet in his article Cameron raises his sights beyond mere tactical advantage. He proclaims that the Conservatives are the party of the Union once again. This is a new departure, after generations of treating Ulster Unionists as the embarrassing mad relatives they hardly knew.
Conservatives are now the only party with representation in every region of the United Kingdom. That is the first time in over a generation that any national political party can make that claim.
Cameron is taking a calculated risk by failing to make the usual obeisance to British Irish partnership and powersharing. Nationalism and the Republic rate not a mention, and he boldly refers to the constitutional issue as settled. So this is no watery cross community pitch. It reads like the beginning of a long battle for unionism, leaving the wider community interests to be dealt with later.
The constitutional issue was settled in 1998 when referendums in the North and South gave |the current arrangements |resounding endorsement Northern Ireland now has the opportunity to re-enter the mainstream of national politics. That is what the Conservatives and Unionists offer.
If the offer is rejected at the polls, what then? Well, Cameron can say he will have done his best. Would he then leave Reg high and dry to face down the cry of unionist splitter alone, or hunker down for the long haul to create a new, looser form of UK unionism? He probably doesn’t know himself. But as we’ve seen, many Ulster Unionists are wary of the Tory toff who plays the Ulster card.
Cameron displays a similar pragmatism towards Scotland where his hope of winning seats is hardly much greater. He has promised to respect the devolution settlement even in the hands of the SNP government and has come out in cautious support for the Calman reports recommendations for more tax and spending powers for Holyrood. Commentator Iain McWhirter doubts if Calman will actually be implemented, but it too, may have its tactical uses.
More likely Calman will be the starting point for negotiations between Alex Salmond and an incoming Conservative government under David Cameron. Eager to address the West Lothian question and under pressure from English Tories to curb spending in Scotland, Cameron might well consider full tax autonomy for Holyrood in exchange for the abolition of Barnett and a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs. And he can use the arguments supplied by a Labour-inspired committee. So, as well as making an honest person of the Scottish parliament, Calman could be the spark that leads to a constitutional transformation in Westminster.
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