As 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.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.