Cometh a Westminster election: cometh UUP incompetence. It seems that the two go hand in hand; always helped of course by that master of the UUP debacle Lord Trimble. Trimble, not content with destroying the party he inherited from Jim Molyneaux, now that he is a Tory, seems determined to repeat the same feat on the CUs. Clearly of course Lord Trimble cannot manage this accomplishment himself. However, he seems to have a willing cast of assistants, possibly more of them in the Conservative wing of the New Farce than on the UUP side.
Many have criticised the decision of the UUP to oppose the devolution of P&J but in truth there was a strategy there involving trying to out flank the DUP. Any such success has now been destroyed by the combination of the Conservatives failure to support the move (admittedly much overhyped by the media and the UUPs political opponents) and of course the rest of the incompetence the CUs have now managed to visit upon themselves. Then further helped by Lady Hermon attacking the UUPs for not doing what the Conservative faction of the party (the bit she will not join up with) wanted.
The complete chaos of the Westminster selections has been extensively reviewed but is worth returning to. It has made one very likely CU gain (Upper Bann) probably a safe DUP seat since Harry Hamilton is going to have grave difficulty attracting significant disenchanted DUP support let alone any TUV voters. The choice of Mike Nesbitt for Strangfiord may be clever but only may be. Strangford is a hard line seat and Nesbitt is no hard liner. He may, however, win it but then he is likely to be even more semi detached than Lady Hermon ever was. However, the prize for utter incompetence must go to South Antrim where Adrian Watson seems to have been vetoed by the Conservatives. The Watchman has already produced an excellent analysis of the fact that this shows how little the Conservatives understand Northern Ireland politics. In their zeal to maximise their political correctness the Tories seem to have thrown away one of the best chances the CUs had to take a seat and as has been mentioned it is highly unlikely that every single Conservative MP is more socially liberal than Mr. Watson.
In contrast as I mentioned previously the DUP seem to be overcoming their worst internal storms. The ship may have steadied but it may still have been holed below the waterline. There are still massive issues for them: Although the party may seem to be united behind the Devolution of Policing and Justice we have yet to see a justice minister appointed and the fact is that six months or six years became six weeks; not in the life time of this assembly became within the lifetime of the about to be dissolved Westminster parliament. In addition it is far from certain that the political lifetime before which there is a Sinn Fein justice minister will be that much longer than Dr. Paisleys remaining political lifetime.
The unionist electorate may be far from happy with the devolution of P&J: they were certainly never actually asked and so poor has the DUPs reading of the unionist electorate been of late that they least can be certain. It was in part the contention that the unionist electorate opposed P&J devolution which drove the UUPs opposition. The problem is that they (the CUs) are now in chaos.
At the height of the DUPs crisis the assumption was that the TUV would eat into the DUPs hard line vote and hence, remove enough votes in a first past the post system to gift seat after seat to the CUs. That may still happen in the following seats: actually just Strangford. In addition conventional wisdom held that is other seats TUVists would vote tactically for the CUs to defeat the DUP incumbents: that is now likely practically nowhere. Rather the opposite voting dynamic cannot now be dismissed out of hand: that traditional UUP voters switch to the CUs to bash the DUP.
So what should the TUV do: give in and go home? Far from it.
Now is the time for the TUV to demonstrate that it is indeed a party with a positive message. Not now and never again let it be said that this is a party purely there to bash the DUP: if that was ever the sum total of the TUVs ambition then it would have deserved to die out immediately after the European election.
To misquote the Bible: the TUV must not rely on the broken reed of the UUP to try to get a proper form of devolved government.
There is a major appetite in the unionist community to fix the disastrous form of government which has seen Ruane produce ruin out of the education system: yes there were problems with the Secondary School sector but the solution was not the current chaos combined with attempts to destroy the preparatory sector and discrimination in favour of Irish medium schools.
Agriculture saw almost equally chaotic scenes with farmers queuing for grants last year and discriminatory practices in this years farm modernisation grants. Farmers have also suffered disproportionally in the vanity project of the A5 improvement which is largely not even providing a dual carriageway but rather the extra crashing lanes in the middle.
To be fair Sinn Fein cannot alone be regarded as the only incompetents: although it miscalls my favourite minister the Giants Causeway debacle was a mess almost exclusively of DUP creation. The current situation in the NHS where despite receiving more money per capita than most of the rest of the UK, we have worse waiting lists etc. is a situation which can largely be laid at the door of McGimpsey and the waiting lists are longer now than they were under Direct rule. A further question mark over McGimpseys competence is raised by his decision to stockpile far more anti flu vaccines and medications than he was advised were necessary: a cheap political stunt with major cost implications.
A proper programme of government might not prevent all this serial incompetence. However, if all the partners in government were prepared to act as a government rather than semi autonomous fiefdoms with interlocking mutual vetoes there might be at least some chance of progress. Certainly it might make some form of cross departmental planning at ministerial level possible.
Such a true cabinet government, however, requires almost by definition voluntary coalition. However no one seems to be that interested in this at least not so much so as to actually take risks to try to achieve it: those risks being the loss of political position and power.
It is in this context that the TUV needs to fight the coming election. Yes certainly mention the sleaze and corruption; certainly point out the differences between the rhetoric and reality of P&J devolution. However, more than anything the TUV need to be positive, articulating a vision of a power sharing system of government with cabinet government and not one with a Catholic about the place but one with lots of Catholics all over and within it; sharing in and participating in a normal democratic government with weighted majorities to ensure permanent cross community involvement.
All the other parties at times explain that the Belfast Agreement model of devolution is temporary. However, the only one which seems willing to do anything about the ugly scaffolding is the TUV. Yes the agreement may need to be destroyed to be reformed but one cannot make an omelette with intact eggs.
This may all sound pie in the sky but in seat after seat now, since the CUs seem to be rapidly imploding, the TUV are in danger of being the main unionist challengers: North Antrim obviously but also Lagan Valley (unless someone thinks that Trimbles latest interventions will catapult his wife to success). East Belfast must be an option for a challenge: certainly Robinson is the front runner but in a multi way split it is highly unclear what will happen and yet again the CU choice of Trevor Ringland looks poor since Naomi Long is likely to hold most of the Alliance vote behind her. The CUs (or at least the Conservative part of them) even seem determined to make Mel Lucas the main challenger to William McCrea in South Antrim.
Clearly the TUVs chances of winning any seat apart from North Antrim are not rated by any of the pundits. That is probably fair in large measure because the candidates (apart from Allister) are far from high profile. However, the whole point of an election campaign is to give the prospective candidates a chance to demonstrate their profile and this election after the expenses scandals etc. is the one where the lack of a pre election profile may be less of a handicap.
An election result with the DUP holding most or all of their seats and with the CUs trailing in behind them in each constituency will change nothing. One in which the TUV win North Antrim and are second in multiple other seats may have much more of an effect. Additionally if the TUV are second placed just one (or two) more scandals approaching Irisgate could surprisingly easily produce two or more TUV MPs.