First up was Basil McCrea who is very much running as the outsider, anti-establishment candidate, making a virtue of the fact that most of the big names in the party machine aren’t supporting him.
[McCrea] Well first of all, I thought long and hard before I went into the leadership race. Tom did declare very early and he did have the backing of a lot of colleagues and party officers. But when you look at that team, you’ve got to say that over the last ten or twelve years we’ve lost a lot of votes, we’ve lost a lot of seats. There is nothing to my mind that says we’ve got some sort of coherent strategy to turn the tide and come back.
And I really do believe that the people of Northern Ireland would like us to be able to do that. They would like to vote for us. They are not particularly happy with the DUP/Sinn Féin axis, but they will not vote for us unless we are seen as competent and progressive and all of those things. So the obligation on me was to say this is where I think we should be going, this is the message, this is the vision and then it’s down to the Ulster Unionist Council, the members of our party to say well I think that’s the right way or it isn’t. So that’s the big difference between Tom and myself.
Asked “What difference will you make as a leader inside the party?” Tom Elliott started by outlining his history within the party.
[Elliott] I think what I have is experience. I have served my apprenticeship through the party for many, many years. I’ve come right up through the ranks, been a volunteer for many years, one of the people who put the posters up and indeed still do put posters up, marked the ballot papers as a polling agent on election day, carried out postal voting applications. All issues like that, volunteering behind the face of the party. And then I moved up through the ranks to be a councillor and a member of the assembly. So I believe I have the experience and the dedication.
Pushed for specifics, he added:
[Elliott] Well what I think I can actually do is to deliver for people. I think I know what the people want. What the people want is a unifying force in Ulster Unionism. We want to ensure we can take our opponents on and those opponents come in a wide range of areas now. They’re not as we used to realise, just nationalists and republicans. They’re right throughout the political sphere now.
Of course, history shows that Ulster Unionist leaders don’t always receive respect from their party. With verbal support from the party machine at this stage, did this guarantee Tom Elliott future smooth relations?
[Elliott] I think in politics, nothing’s guaranteed. That’s the one thing you can be sure of. But quite clearly what I want to do is do the best for Ulster Unionism. And obviously at times people will not agree with that. But what I do ask is a respect for my belief and that I will have a respect for what others believe in and their issues, so that at the end if we can’t agree, we can at least agree to have a difference of opinion.
Basil McCrea didn’t see his lack of party machine support as a weakness.
[McCrea] When you talk about leaders not getting respect, part of that is because they perhaps were not spending time to engage with the members and explain this is what has to be done. And that’s certainly something I intend to do. And I would also point out since you brought it up that when David Trimble won the leadership, not one of the MPs in the party supported him.
Next post will look at whether they feel the campaign has been divisive and their plans for party unity post-leadership election.