There is a little bit of the feeling of a phoney war to the election campaign at the moment. The candidates are being chosen but the battles at the moment are mere skirmishes as compared to what is to come. Clearly all can change and much will but as the process goes forward at the moment it is looking, on the unionist side, as if the DUP’s position is getting stronger rather than weaker.
The DUP are managing to put increasing distance between them and Irisgate, double jobbing, expenses etc., though all their political rivals may well be keeping their powder dry on those issues to bring them back out in the election campaign proper. Additionally the whispered rumours amongst the political cognoscenti regarding further skeletons in a number of DUP closets have remained exactly that: rumours only.
The DUP have always been characterised by a remarkable level of internal discipline and their recent problems and apparent internal dissent over the devolution of policing and justice seem to have been put behind them. In addition the prospect of an election always tends to unite parties and as such the DUP as in about as good a shape as they can be considering the turbulent 12 months which they have experienced. Of course that is not actually anything like as strong a position as they were in March 2009 let alone March 2007, following the last assembly elections. However, although the DUP have had to lower their sights and indeed have suffered very badly in recent times there is a significant possibility that they could emerge from this election, if not strengthened then at least little damaged: a feat scarcely believable at the height of Irisgate.
The DUP must think carefully about expectation planning and management in this election in order for limited losses to look like triumph. The first thing they cannot expect is anything other than a loss in their share of the vote. With the TUV in play and even a modest revival of UUP fortunes, the DUP must resign itself to loosing many, many thousands of votes as compared to all previous elections apart from the last European one. Hence, it is most unlikely that the DUP website will any time soon return to proudly displaying their percentage of the vote in recent elections.
Although a significant drop in the percentage vote is to be expected and must be factored into any spin surrounding the election, the DUP can be considerably more optimistic regarding hold seats. The likely losses have been massively reduced from the seeming disaster to now maybe only three or four as a worst case scenario.
The DUP have been helped significantly by some of the CU’s choices: As I have mentioned previously whatever Harry Hamilton’s personal qualities it does not look like a particularly good choice to take on David Simpson, especially if there is no TUV candidate. Strangford, North and South Antrim remain vulnerable but on a good day it is possible that the DUP could hold all of them or only lose one or two.
If the DUP can avoid any losses to the TUV, they can present them as serial failures; unable to win an election and although that may be unfair, it will be difficult for the TUV without any representatives beyond local councils. Then the DUP may hope that the momentum which the TUV gained from the European election will dissipate and the party will slowly or rapidly disappear, admittedly leaving many voters still very angry with the DUP for their policy volte face but with no realistic home for their votes other than the DUP.
Turning to their tactics towards the CUs: If the DUP can engineer losing only two seats to them; they can present the much vaunted New Force as having very little relevance. Indeed South Antrim could be explained away as a candidate who has never really gelled with the constituency and who has lost the seat previously. Strangford is even easier to dismiss by reference to the Irisgate factor and the suggestion that the DUP had a close to impossible task there for that reason alone. Additionally if Mike Nesbitt does win (and that prospect is far from certain) he can be presented as not really a typical CU candidate and a man who is semi detached from the rest of the party in much the same way as Sylvia Hermon came to be viewed. If the elections could end with only two CU MPs, the DUP can probably feel that it has been a good election. If, however, they can manage to reduce the losses to one seat and especially if the CUs fail to hold North Down, then the DUP can present the CUs, after all the bluster, spin and hubris, as actually losing relevance compared to the last general election for the UUP. Then the European election would truly have been a Dead Cat bounce.
If the CUs end up with nothing (not impossible) of course then the DUP could indeed be close to a major realignment of unionism in its favour. That is unlikely but such have been the dire predictions for the DUP at the height of Irisgate, that the loss of three or less seats can be presented as a fairly good election for them.
DUP party strategists of course cannot afford to be so sanguine. If the TUV can win North Antrim, let alone if they win more than that, they will remain on the political scene for the foreseeable future: and they probably will survive even if they loose North Antrim. That will make the Assembly elections and holding enough seats to gain the first ministership a very difficult task for the DUP. Against that, if the TUV and CUs do badly then the shroud waving demand that unionists vote DUP to stop a Sinn Fein first minister might be worth wheeling out again; might have an air of credibility and become an achievable goal. Then if the DUP could be back in the position of being larger than Sinn Fein whilst in power sharing with them, Peter Robinson’s long term goal would have been realised.
The other imponderable issues for the DUP are the extent to which voters feel that they still want to punish them for entering power sharing and whether or not the voters feel that the Hillsborough agreement on P&J devolution was a triumph or disaster. The DUP completely misread the electorate last year at the European election and suffered one of their worst recent political debacles; they now seem to think that the electorate will accept P&J devolution but they have been wrong before. Finally of course there are Events and if some of the rumours which swirled around the internet and elsewhere at the height of Irisgate were shown to be true at least one other constituency would almost certainly fall: then the situation might become disastrous. Overall, however, there are some reasons for the DUP to feel more confident than they did only three months ago. Being on the way up after a disaster is a more comfortable place than being on the way down into one. Which they will be after the election is still far from clear.