The Tories in Ulster and the social policy trap..

Our sometimes guest contributor The Watchman offers this analysis on why, when the Tory project may be righting itself just in time for the general election in Britain, it has seemed to go so badly wrong for them in Northern Ireland. He offers a number of reasons why it has all gone wrong for them, amongst them, he argues, “lethal damage could be inflicted on the whole CU alliance if candidates had to sign up to Dave’s liberal metropolitan obsessions.”The Watchman

The sudden arrival of snow has made this a good week for the UUP to bury bad news, namely the first occasion when an Ulster Unionist candidate has been removed on the say-so of a Tory leader. Yes, it’s South Antrim.

From the start, I foresaw three crucial problems with the CU alliance. (I hate “UCUNF”.) Firstly, the Tories instantly put their new allies on a hook by pledging that the CUs would contest every single seat.

Secondly, the cumbersome process of selection seemed a recipe for trouble. The UUP could select someone and have that candidature overridden by the London Tory machine. What UU activist would be prepared to work for someone who had displaced their freely chosen nominee? Would such a person not owe their loyalty to those who had really chosen them?

The name of Margaret McVeigh, an Ulster-born Tory activist in the Cities of London and Westminster, was mooted as the CCHQ candidate. (I ran her name past a Tory insider and he had never heard of her). Whatever Ms McVeigh’s attributes, it was stupid even to consider parachuting a leader’s favourite from SW1 into a constituency at the expense of the local mayor. Rigged Tory selection processes might work in the Home Counties but they are a recipe for disaster in Ulster.

Thirdly, social policy could be a key fault line. There always seemed potential for a cultural clash between the politically correct Cameroons and the more socially conservative unionist electorate. Lethal damage could be inflicted on the whole CU alliance if candidates had to sign up to Dave’s liberal metropolitan obsessions.

When I posted on the Watson subject previously, I found the bungling of South Antrim mystifying. Few unionists give a hoot about what Watson said 4 years ago. His candidature for the CUs would have prompted criticism from The Guardian and bile from the usual suspects who post on Slugger, but that’s it. Why was there so much hostility to Watson in Tory ranks?

Here’s a possible answer. Consider the Cameroons: after the election, there will be (they hope) either a small Tory majority government or a minority one. Such a government will become unpopular very quickly. In such circumstances, the composition of the Parliamentary Party will be very important. From his election as leader in 2005, Cameron and his clique have used candidate selection to shape the future Tory Parliamentary Party in their own image. They want a tame pliable grouping for obvious reasons. Did they come to view Watson as a probable factional enemy, one best blackballed? Even if a UUP/Tory lost South Antrim in May, the re-election of Willie McCrea would be no big problem – after all the DUP will want to do a deal with the Tories in a hung Parliament.

Of course Watson’s blackballing gives the DUP a great narrative at an otherwise difficult time. It can portray itself as a party that isn’t in a Tory leader’s pocket, that is not dependent on Tory money and which is not obsessed with faddish political correctness. That could shore up its vote and damage the CUs far beyond Newtownabbey.

Meanwhile, watch what Adrian Watson does now. After having been treated abominably, he would be fully entitled to resign and take public revenge on those who blackballed him. But there may be a way out that makes everyone happy. The UUP selects Danny Kinahan as its Westminster candidate. Kinahan unseats Willie McCrea and then resigns his Assembly seat. Would it be a surprise if Watson was nominated to fill it? At least Dave Cameron’s permission wouldn’t be necessary.