Tom Elliott has had very little of a honeymoon as leader of the UUP. Despite being elected by an enormous margin (still very large even if Fermanagh’s votes had been excluded): he has had multiple problems since being elected. Whilst the alternative leader (Basil McCrea) might well have resulted in an implosion it seems that even with Elliott the UUP may gradually atrophy and die: eighteen months ago, I described their better showing in the European election as possibly a “Dead Cat Bounce”. Thus far the danger of ongoing decline looks severe. Elliott has been trying to offer alternatives and move forwards: his problems, however, seem more systemic and from his own members (or ex members) rather than from any failings of his own.
At the time of the song and dance over Elliott saying he would not attend Gay Rights parades or GAA matches, Elliott pointed to his work with his local GAA clubs and the fact that he had nothing against homosexuals. As I mentioned at the time many GB politicians have not marched in a Gay Rights parade: yet are not denounced as homophobic. Subsequent to Elliott’s election he has met with the GAA and is to meet with Gay Rights groups. Thus far all the protagonists to the meetings seem to have been happy with these initiatives.
The main problem for Elliott has been the drip, drip of defections from the UUP. All parties suffer from defections at times but the recent ones from the UUP have played into the narrative of a party in gradual even terminal decline.
A unifying characteristic of the defectors seems to have been personal political ambition: there is actually nothing wrong with personal ambition in politics or elsewhere; those who put themselves forward to be elected political representatives should believe that they can and will do a good job.
There are specific problems with the UUP and its defectors: a scarce few months ago the UUP promoted itself as a party which was likely to gain multiple MPs. The link up with the Tories always looked more like a politico’s dream rather a real foundation to gain a huge increase in votes and hence, elected representatives. Now, following the disaster which was the UUP’s election, it appears that many of those promoted as Westminster candidates seem to have believed their own hype. As such they seem to feel that they personally should have won, that the UUP’s brand name dragged them down electorally and that in another party they could yet win senior electoral office.
Added to that problem is the fact that the UUP has not selected a number of them for Stormont and, hence, one is left with people whose profile, ambition and possibly ego has been raised recently and yet now have no outlet for that ambition. In a way this is one of the problems of not having double jobbing. Had the failed Westminster candidates been existing MLAs there is a considerably lower chance that they would have jumped ship. As it was the UUP was possibly foolish not to select the likes of Paula Bradshaw and Harry Hamilton as MLA candidates. Set against that Bradshaw and Hamilton’s vote was workman like rather than stunning. Many might suggest that a donkey with a UUP sticker on it would have gained much the same vote as those candidates received in their respective constituencies. However, the candidates’ egos seem such that, in their own minds, they have appropriated what was a UUP party vote as their own personal vote. A very similar situation seems to be the case with David McClarty: he has forgotten that whilst he has a certain personal vote around Coleraine, much of what is left of the East Londonderry UUP vote will vote UUP no matter who is the candidate. Willie Ross mistakenly thought that he could garner a significant personal vote in May when standing for the TUV: his failure should be noted by McClarty.
Added to the UUP’s problems with the defections is the fact that many of the Westminster candidates whose Stormont ambitions have now been thwarted came from the liberal wing of the party. Rivers of ink have been split (or more accurately internet server space consumed) over the best way forward for the UUP. The unicorn chasers have claimed consistently that there are masses of liberal unionists and pro union Catholics about to come enthusiastically to whoever can raise the liberal unionist electoral banner. When the unicorns failed to materialise electorally the blame was laid at the door of the UUP for not being welcoming enough for these unicorns. Then when the UUP elected Tom Elliott the unicorn chasers claimed that this was further proof that the UUP were out of touch and that only they had the magic formula to find the unicorns. The fact that much of the evidence seems to show that the garden centre Prod is actually likely to be hardline; the non voting Prod is often working not middle class; the unionist Catholic is probably still half a generation from voting for an overtly unionist party and the haemorrhage of votes from the UUP has been largely to the DUP are all ignored. The unicorn tamers like the alchemists of the middle ages are utterly convinced that lead can indeed be made into gold: that liberal unionism is indeed the sleeping giant of Ulster politics.
To add to the UUP’s woes is the fact that its extremely decentralised nature allows local constituencies to pick candidates almost completely autonomously. A central leadership might have kept McClarty on the ticket (though in the interests of modernisation there is no guarantee of that). It would almost certainly have retained Paula Bradshaw whose deselection looks more like the internal machinations of the South Belfast party than a wise strategic electoral decision.
Certain candidates failing to be selected as Stormont candidates after having been moderately (and only moderately) successful Westminster hopefuls might not have caused a problem if the UUP was seen as a party moving forwards and gaining momentum. In such a scenario an ambitious prospective politician might well be willing to sit it out and try for selection again next time. If the candidate did jump ship their departure might be seen as an irrelevance. However, since the narrative for the UUP has been one of decline these electorally failed hopefuls seem to feel that they are worth more individually than they were in the party. They also seem to feel that they will bring much of their previous vote with them to Alliance and tap further into that mass of unicorns and garden centre Prods: truly lead will glister as gold. In McClarty’s case he seems to feel that he has that formula without even needing the Alliance vote. To be fair considering Alliance’s irrelevance in East Londonderry, leaving them out is probably reasonable. In addition although I have never rated McClarty personally it is clear that he was not going to be able to make a subsequent comeback having been deselected by the UUP: hence, his decision to stand as an independent, though not laudable, is at least understandable.
The danger seems to be that these defections, caused in part as they are by the failure of the CUs to make any impact at Westminster, will feed into the decline narrative and will feed the media analysis of ongoing, maybe terminal decline for the UUP. Then if the UUP do badly in May the defectors will be convinced that they left at the right time and that if their leaving did damage it was to a party already holed below the water line. The fact that they will probably have failed themselves to be elected will undoubtedly be analysed by them as far from a personal failing but rather the fault of someone, anyone else and quite possibly the UUP again. That the defectors will have shot both themselves in the head and the UUP in the foot in such a scenario will no doubt be ignored.
All the above looks extremely pessimistic: There are some possibilities for hope, however. Tom Elliott seems to be carefully positioning the UUP back where Jim Molyneaux’s once utterly dominant party stood. He seems to be trying to be moderately hardline; yet nobody’s bigot. His decision to meet with the Gay Rights campaigners and the GAA and the positive messages flowing from that may help. If Elliott can mobilise some of the non voting Prods (the trolls) and recapture some of the DUP’s support then he may slowly achieve much. The problem is that standing still is probably a significant ambition yet politics requires forward momentum and currently very few are predicting gains for the UUP. That said very few of the cognescenti thought that the CUs would do as badly as they did at Westminster. If Tom can truly manage the Molyneaux trick of out righting and out lefting the DUP it will be a stunning achievement. Elliott has many personal qualities: so far Trevor Ringland has learnt to his cost that Elliott is not a man to be bullied; others may yet also realise that they have underestimated Tom. However, despite his personal qualities there is a high chance that he lacks the breadth and depth of talent in his team to achieve a Molyneaux-esque victory. As I said before the mountain he has to claim is no trivial Everest: more K2 in its lethal ferocity. If he fails, however, Elliott will at least go down fighting: a Fermanagh version of George Mallory.
For the defectors, however, the future is probably even less rosy: their chances of success in their new parties are lower than they were in the UUP. Their chances of winning an assembly seat as independents or with Alliance look extremely poor. If the UUP fail they will probably look like rats deserting the sinking ship for a life raft already containing half a dozen large cats. If Tom does achieve a remarkable success, however, the defectors would look even sillier: rats deserting the Carpathia for the Titanic; motivated by selfish political ambition and in their actions demonstrating the lack of political understanding and consistency needed to be serious political figures. Some may also look like foolish middle aged men who would have been wiser as part of their midlife crisis to buy a Porsche or Ferrari (I would recommend a Porsche) rather than stand for election.