Tom Elliott hands the poisoned chalice on

As referred to extensively below Tom Elliott has announced his decision to step down as UUP leader and Danny Kennedy has now announced his decision to stand. There has been much analysis both in the press and in blogs about the decision: as ever the best to my mind is Alex Kane’s in the News Letter.

Tom Elliott was elected by a considerable margin over Basil McCrea even if one leaves out the votes from Fermanagh. At the time I suggested that Tom Elliott was by far the better option and that McCrea might well have split the party.

From the beginning the signs were far from auspicious for Elliott’s leadership. His initial problems regarding his refusal to attend gay pride events or GAA matches seemed for some to set the tone. There were a few gaffes such as calling Sinn Fein’s supporters scum. He was portrayed as an old fashioned, anachronistic out of touch culchie leader with nothing to offer save managed decline.

There is some truth in some of the criticism but in reality much of it seemed to stem from having decided Tom was the wrong leader and then viewing everything he said or did through that prism. Elliott was far from atrocious on the media but his slow Fermanagh style was not particularly media friendly. Furthermore he did not seem to relish the media the way modern politicians need to (the likes of Peter Robinson are vastly more media friendly than they were twenty years ago). He stuck loyally to the Impartial Reporter for a number of announcements and interviews which did look a bit odd and overly Fermanagh focused from a politician offering to lead the whole of unionism. Elliott did not look “trendy” to the largely Belfast based regional newspapers and broadcast media and the problem seems to have become a vicious circle hurting Tom Elliott rather than the media. It must be remembered that David Trimble made quite a number of gaffes and lost his temper on television a number of times yet he did not get the level of media contempt Elliott tended to receive: that said Trimble was leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland at that time.

Internal problems also seem to have beset Elliott with a cabal of supposed modernisers opposing him: certainly he has commented on that in his resignation interview; though as Alex Kane has noted Elliott did have a bit of a cabal of his own exploring links with the DUP.

Again, however, within his own party it seemed at times that Elliott was not given an entirely fair wind or the levels of unquestioning support which UUP leaders have tended to get from their membership practically no matter what they did. Even Trimble received overwhelming support until he actually signed up to the Belfast Agreement. Part of Elliott’s problems may have been his style and the way the media tended to view him. Again, however, there seemed at times to be a degree of snobbery from assorted pseudo intellectuals and liberals within the party. There is a bit of a history of snobbery both social and intellectual within the UUP which has frequently seen it treat its grass roots with contempt and the Fermanagh farmer may have looked to culchie-ish and too stupid to be regarded as a good leader. For the record when I met Tom Elliott to discuss specific policy issues he grasped complex concepts completely unrelated to party politics or his own profession with remarkable speed and asked relevant questions more pertinent than I have had from most media or political types, including a number of supposed UUP intellectuals. Furthermore Elliott was no bigot: his blunt at times stubborn country attitude, however, allowed him to be painted in such a light. Those trendy UUP types who wish to carp might, however, reflect on the experience of Fermanagh Prods of Elliott’s generation whilst they sleep so contented in their beds within the greater Belfast Pale.

Where Elliott did have problems, arguably his greatest, was in presenting a vision alternative to that of Peter Robinson’s dominant DUP. Elliott wanted to unite opposition to the current position of the DUP and present an alternative way forward. He was, however, too slow to present an alternative and moreover had no effective counter to the DUP’s devastatingly effective narrative of moving Northern Ireland forward. In addition Elliott had no answer to the succession of progressive suggestions Robinson has been able to make from his position of impregnable power and authority as DUP leader. Ever since he survived the scandals over Iris etc. Robinson has been so dominant that internal dissent has never had the nerve to mount any campaign media or otherwise against him.

Elliott also suffered from being possibly too nice and too consensual and in too weak a position, all of which produced a vicious circle to undermine his authority. When Trevor Ringland threw his hissy fit over the GAA, Elliott was initially reasonably conciliatory at least in public; when Ringland continued I believe Elliott did tell him to stop making a song and dance yet Ringland continued, flounced out and then gave media interviews. Yet after all that Danny Kennedy still suggested that he (Ringland) might be welcomed back. If one changes the party to the DUP the impossibility of such a situation occurring is illustrated. If a failed parliamentary candidate had directly contradicted Peter Robinson, failed to keep quiet after being spoken to by Robinson and then left the party; it is highly unlikely that any senior DUP figures would say any nice things about him.

The Ringland saga and that of the other civic unionists also illustrates another of Elliott’s problems. Elliott was not seen as a civic unionist and although possibly a harder cross community worker than many of them (his advocacy for both sections of the community in Fermanagh is well recognised by all) he did not come across as terribly “civic”. A further problem for many of the civic unionists who jumped ship may also have come back to the snobbery angle. Most of them are frightfully well educated with many more letters after their names than Tom Elliott (or myself I hasten to add). For them being ordered about by the Fermanagh farmer may have rankled a bit. More importantly, however, Elliott’s main prescription for recovery for the UUP was hard constituency work. That is far from the entitlement to political power which so often seemed to be the dominant if unspoken motif of so many civic unionists. They were so clever, educated, urbane and sophisticated that of course the electorate would vote for them and not the ghastly DUP (or Alliance). That unlike them, Tom Elliott got himself elected time after time and worked hard for his constituents did not seem to result in respect: rather in contempt for Tom and at times his constituents.

Many of these civic unionists and many others in the UUP still seem completely incapable of understanding that the UUP is the lesser of the unionist parties. Many in the party still seem to feel that there is some sort of alchemists formula of conservatism, civic-ism, liberalism and general “trendiness” which when sprinkled on the UUP will once again make them the obvious home for unionists along with being the pheromone which attracts the Catholic unionist unicorns and the garden centre unionists (should we call them gnomes as they supposedly live in gardens?).

More than anything Tom Elliott would not or could not pander to the media, to the civic unionists with their entitlement complex or to the urban and suburban unionist electorate who defected to the DUP during Trimble’s disastrous leadership. Furthermore he had no way to out right or even out left the enormous powerhouse of a party which Peter Robinson has created. As such in a party with so many people still thinking that they are only a few clever ideas away from once again being the dominant unionist party he did not have enough to offer. The fact is as Alex Kane has suggested that in the current scenario the leadership of the UUP is a poisoned chalice. Tom Elliott held it and although damaged has not been killed, nor allowed his party to be killed by it: how the next holder will get on remains to be seen.