It was obvious from the outset that Danny Kennedy and Mike Nesbitt were keen on a deal that would embrace thirteen of the fifteen MLAs, all of the peers and the bulk of the party officers. The logic, I presume, was that such a move would scare off the ‘liberals’ from putting up one of their own candidates; allowing the party to avoid a contest and rally around a supposed dream ticket. This would allow continuity, yet ensure better presentational and organisational skills at the top of the party.
But John McCallister decided to move first and move early, which meant that the negotiations between Kennedy and Nesbitt became more complicated: becoming a battle about who was best able to beat McCallister. Complicating matters further was the fact that McCallister’s pitch on immediate Opposition would force the party to make a very clear cut decision—something it tends to avoid.
…by the time of Nesbitt’s launch on March 15, tallies suggested that Kennedy probably wouldn’t win on the first round and that the transfer of either the McCallister or Nesbitt vote would split between them rather than going in big enough numbers to him. He paid the price for dithering—-a fatal flaw for anyone serious about leadership.
But, he counsels:
No-one should assume that McCallister is heading towards massive and certain defeat. Jim Molyneaux didn’t win in 1979 by saying that he would do little or nothing for the next sixteen years. David Trimble didn’t win in 1995 by saying that he would negotiate a deal with Sinn Fein. Reg Empey didn’t win in 2005 by saying he would do a deal with the Conservatives. Tom Elliott didn’t win in 2010 by saying he would ok secret talks with the DUP.
McCallister is telling them exactly what he intends to do from day one. If he wins on March 31 he will take the UUP out of the Executive on April 2. He will claim that his mandate is from the highest source of authority within the party—the members who turn up at the AGM of the Ulster Unionist Council. The very fact that he is telling them what he intends to do, and is using his campaign as a mandate for that policy, may have surprisingly broad appeal for a party membership which is used to hearing about policy changes on television or in newspapers!
Adds: Well worth listening to Eamonn’s interview with John McCallister… It gets a lot sharper towards the end. If you’re stuck for time, clip to the last fifteen minutes where McCallister turns the tables the elegantly pugnacious Eamonn several times…
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty