UUP leadership interviews – videos, wrap up and getting off the fence

UUP banner logo - slightly croppedAs I mentioned in the first post in this series, I’m not a member of the UUP, nor any other political party. So I’ve no vote next week when the members gather to elect their new leader. (They’re meeting to vote at the Waterfront Hall. Postal voting was too expensive to organise … and voting online like many of us do for union ballots and shareholder AGMs wasn’t put in place.)

In deciding to interview the two candidates I deliberately kept it short and shared a lot of the same questions across both Tom Elliott and Basil McCrea. You can watch the two videos embedded below and get a bit of a feel for their facial expressions, smirks and general delivery.

But what did I make of the two candidates?

Basil was terribly straightforward. He got back to me quite quickly when I asked for a quick interview – and on that basis I’m talking about him first in this post – and it was done and dusted before I’d got any reply from Tom. It neither felt like he was on guard, nor that he was performing for the camera. He was as affable and fluent before, during and after the interview.

He was very comfortable in his role as the challenger and outsider. It’s not the first time he’s run for an election and not been the favourite. Despite its rough moments, he seemed to be enjoying the campaign. He talked a lot about “the party” and “our party”.

After we’d finished, Basil had questions to ask me, and he listened to the answers. He took the opportunity to get another viewpoint – often a good skill for a leader. With the interview over, he picked up with me a couple of things I’d said, clarifying a fact that I’d indeed got wrong. Although the draft of his campaign speech finished with a reference to God, the final delivered version had dropped the line. Having dealt with my question smoothly during the interview, it was only afterwards that he picked me up on the comment and clarified it.

The Folks on the Hill stereotype of Basil McCrea would place his jolly Boris-Johnston-type character in the middle of the road up to Parliament Buildings at Stormont, or perhaps in a garden centre. (The interview took place in a pub immediately after he’d attended a garden fair in a local church!)

Basil’s often accused of being policyless. His five leadership pledges partly filled that void. At least everyone now knows that education is a priority, and to achieve it he needs the UUP to blow away the DUP in May 2011 with a set of credible candidates. Wider than education, he didn’t mention a lot of other substantial policy areas. Though both candidates see a diversity of opinion within the UUP membership, which seems to lead to a woolliness of policy ideas and specific vision. Talking afterwards, Basil cited examples of UUP members displaying their middle-of-the-road tendencies – a party that is more centrist than extreme.

Tom was much harder to get hold of. But despite my nagging emails, he was perfectly pleasant when we met at Lurgan Town Hall just before the second hustings event started. He turned up fifteen minutes late – and had spent the morning in court at the Fermanagh & South Tyrone hearing – so perhaps his tight of timetable was preying on his mind. But I’d expected him to be more fired up and mentally switched into campaign mode with his stump speech rhetoric at the tip of his tongue. Instead he underwhelmed me with his opening 60 second pitch, which only lasted about 30 seconds, taking my instruction to “keep your answers short” a little too much to heart.

Tom’s not brilliant at answering questions. I know the feeling from promotion board interviews in work that didn’t go the right way. The first sentence he utters in response isn’t always related to your question. By the second sentence he’s actually starting to get into his stride.

There’s some odd language in there too. He uses the phrase “settled mindset” when he talks about “the people of NI … should have a settled mindset to live within the UK, to be part of the union …” but it’s not a phrase that anyone outside the party is going to warm to. And he uses the word “union” a lot.

Tom didn’t refer once to Basil during the interview. If you feel you’re ahead in a race, there’s generally no need to publicise your rival. (Whereas Basil often referred to Tom and contrasted his own campaign and policies to those of Tom.)

Tom draws on his apprenticeship within the party and his long-standing loyalty to it. Asked to consider the current team of MLAs and give them a mark out of ten for diversity, he instead gave them “a mark out of ten for loyalty, and that is ten out of ten”. (In contrast Basil commented that “obviously they’re all male and they’re all over a certain age” and he would have to address the issue.)

On the other hand he broke into a smile at times and saw the funny side of some of my remarks. In an attempt to explore the candidates’ personalities and ability to be witty and think on their feet, I threw in some rapid fire questions at the end. Not the best idea I’ve ever had, but neither Tom and Basil complained.

Both men managed to recall the last time they’d stood for election and lost, neither thought Jeffrey Donaldson had much chance of getting back into the party, and both were stumped at the all-to-clever-to-be-asked “A-Team’s Mr T or Mrs T”.

If you watch the interviews, you’ll discover that the answers to the question “Mac or PC?” illustrates the two candidates so well.

[Elliott] Oh, PC.

Tom is traditional, conservative, low key and low risk. There used to be a phrase in industry that said “no one ever got sacked for buying IBM”. And Tom fits that space. I doubt whether as leader he would change much of the party structures or its appeal, and if I was a UUP member I’d worry that his profile outside the party would be lower than Margaret Ritchie and David Ford. He comes across as steady rather than inspirational. A good man to have on your team, but does he have the right strengths to be coach and leader?

[McCrea] “Undecided. Dithering with a Mac, but probably PC.”

Basil comfortably lives life on the edge. He can make decisions, but he’ll postpone making the commitment as long as possible. While he projects the image that if he wins he’ll turn the party upside down, the reality might be more nuanced. He’s media savvy and comfortable talking. At Proms in the Park – on his Hillsborough constituency doorstep – he managed to appear on the big screen at the side of the stage twice by standing in the right place striking the right pose when the producer needed a fun crowd shot. While a (very) small number of MLAs and councillors might walk away from the party if Basil is elected leader, he’d be well shot of them, even if it means his chance of winning back lots of Assembly seats for the UUP is even more remote. He sounds like a leader, and projects a mood of hope: growing the vote, beating the DUP. But he’ll need all the hope he can muster along with asbestos underwear if the UUP members vote him in as leader in the Waterfront next Wednesday.

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  • slug

    Alan – just want to thank you warmly for a really good and thoughtful series of posts and these fantastic video interviews.

    I found them very informative.

    I have warmed to both candidates. I think they are both good candidates. I am more naturally a Basil person and but I think Tom did a good interview with you and I recognise his strengths too..

  • HeinzGuderian

    I hope Basil wins……………..the \UUP needs to drag itself into the Twenty-First Century,and leave all the orange,godly,men in grey suits nonsense behind !!

  • Cheers – my broadband connection is glad to have finished the upload!

  • slug

    Your interviews, by asking the same questions generally, are revealing of the differences in the two men. They reacted in quite different ways to the same questions-though at least as much in terms of style as content! Well done.

  • Seymour Major

    This post is most illuminating and it fits with my general impression from watching Hearts and Minds.

    Tom Elliot tried his best to deal with questions about the gay pride/GAA gaffe but he still has not developed the language of inclusiveness, calling the Catholic Community “that community” as if he saw himself as complete separate from them.

    McCrea gives the impression that he has mastered his brief but he needs to know when to provide detail and when to be more general. He gave too short an answer on the first question about Education. It sounded, at that point, as if getting rid of Ruane was his only policy. If Thompson had not teased out more detail from him, we might have been left wondering.

    On balance, I am convinced that McCrea would give the UUP the best prospect of reversing their electoral decline. Of course, UUP members might view the matter differently.

  • Drumlin Rock

    Seymour, where did you see H&Ms? its only on now I think!

  • Pete Baker

    You’re watching the repeat…

  • Drumlin Rock

    ahh, missed first one, lol
    think Tom had the edge on H&Ms, Basil prob has on Alan’s interviews, a wee touch of sour grapes from alex, but whats new.
    He is right however in sitting in the middle means you get squeezed from either side, but the flip side is parties often eventually return to their normal form, ie. the left wing spending of Old Labour returned to allow the Torys back, will the DUP drift of to the right again and Alliance be that neutral that they fade again?

  • joeCanuck

    Postal voting was too expensive to organise..

    Says who? I’d be glad to organize it next time for a very modest fee. It will cost a lot less than the petrol bought to travel.
    A membership list, a bunch of envelopes, a coding system, a few hundred stamps, and Bob’s your uncle.
    Shows how outdated this bunch are.

  • aquifer

    Basil could be the top gun pilot who turns so fast he is hard to hit. Should be a real problem for the DUP as incumbents, a game changer.

    And the lumpen prod mafia in the UUP can dump him later after he has brought their party back into contention.

    Worth lending him a vote.

  • dodrade

    Making Basil leader would be to pour new wine into old bottles, with predictable results. The UUP’s decline is so far gone I doubt it would survive McCrea’s radical surgery.

  • john greene

    Reading elsewhere that the row over memberhsip lists has dissapated does this mean we now know how many menbers the UUP has?
    What is that number?

  • Sean Og

    According to the wireless at lunch time over half of the UUP members live in Fermanagh.

    Make of that what you will.

  • slug

    You have a wireless?

  • Tom’s Talkback interview is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00tpn5v/Talkback_17_09_2010 (complete with a similar rapid fire round of questions about 56 mins in)

    Basil’s interview was the previous day at http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b00tpn3g/Talkback_16_09_2010 (quick quiz at 47 mins)

  • john greene

    Tom Elliott’s grammar is not great is it?

  • Greenflag

    ‘Basil’s often accused of being policyless’.

    So ? Can be an actual advantage . FF in the republic was successful in elections for decades without bothering much about policies – as Sean Lemass put it to a horrified English TCD Professor Basil Chubb ‘we make it up as we go along in the light of changing circumstances’

    The UUP is in 2010 like the Irish economy in the mid 1980’s badly in need of a radical shake up .

    Seems to me from listening to both of these candidates that
    Basil McCrea is the better bet and being East of the Bann closer to most ‘Unionists’ .

    Tom Elliot is a good man no doubt but I can’t see him leading the UUP out of it’s present political desert.

  • Greenflag

    Never mind his grammar . His comment that the people of Northern Ireland should have a ‘settled/ mindset to live within the UK and to be part of the Union ‘ won’t win him a Westminster seat from FST .

  • with or without those ‘extra’ votes you mean?

  • Anyone seriously using FF as an example of success at elections should wait and see what happens irredentist populism once they ride that particular x-factor over the nearest cliff face in their next election.

    Besides, we already have parties without policies in NI.

  • Dewi

    Finally found time to watch – good stuff and great series Alan. Is that a Fermanagh accent with Elliot?

  • Let’s hope so since he’s MLA for Fermanagh & South Tyrone!

  • asitis

    People from both camps seem to be putting Elliott ahead by between 40 and 100 votes.

    Rumours abound that Basil has plans in place for a new party, with ‘serious’ business financial support.

  • That would be a fascinating development, but hardly helpful to his leadership campaign. Either he’s planning his escape a little too early, or someone’s spreading black propaganda.

  • Seymour Major


    That is something which I think ought to be substantiated, in fairness to both of the leadership contenders.

    Please provide the sources of these rumours.

  • I probably should have made it clear in my previous comment, but I would be very surprised if this rumour were true. I don’t believe McCrea is so naive as to try to ride two horses at once. There may well be people out there who would welcome such a move, but that does not mean he is personally involved in any such discussions.

    Fascinating idea, but I smell a rat.

  • Progressive Unionist

    Funny that nobody I know in either camp has heard anything remotely like this!

    These kind of far-fetched ‘black ops’ allegations smack of desperation from those trying to stop Basil…

  • Drumlin Rock

    easy PU, your just as bad as Asitis, more than likely it is soemone outside the party spreading it stirr things

  • asitis

    As I said, ‘rumours abound’

    My source claims to have had a conversation with a businessman who was asked to support Basil if he were successful and asked if he would be prepared to help fund a ‘moderate’ party if Basil were not successful.

    I guess there are always rumours around things like this but my source has no personal reason to make this up.

    Other stories are doing the rounds linking Basil to two recently independent MLA’s.

    But I am sure that time will tell on the reality of all these ‘rumours’.

  • Progressive Unionist

    DR – there is a difference between vigorous political debate, as you and I have been engaged in over recent weeks, and spreading unfounded rumours with no named source.

    Asitis – so you had a conversation with someone who had a conversation with someone etc etc… that doesn’t even amount to ‘rumours abound’ unless you’ve got other sources!

    – as for the two independent MLAs, it’s already in the public domain that Kieran Deeny was due to attend Basil’s launch but couldn’t, and if the other you refer to is Alan McFarland, then I’m sure all UUP supporters with any sense would wish for someone of his talents and abilities to return to the fold. If Basil’s leadership skills can expedite that, then all the better.