A bold step? Or just more of the same better communicated? An interview with John McCallister and some thoughts on Mike Nesbitt.

I spoke to John McCallister on Monday evening after the close of a Platform for Change event looking at a change “from the politics of identity to the politics of ideas”.

I view it very simply that we don’t have many more chances to get this right. We either do the unionist unity route which I’m very opposed to – I think it’s bad for Northern Ireland, bad for unionism, just an unhealthy state in our politics and we would all become far too complacent and cosy – or go into opposition and actually strike out in that bold way.

On leadership:

The party needs a leader who is going to lead. We don’t need somebody who’s going to chair or manage or just not make too much of a fuss. We actually need somebody who is prepared to lead, this is the direction they’re going to take the party in, and get on with leading. And that’s what I think I can offer the party if elected on Saturday.

Mike Nesbitt confidently states that he be leader. The look on his face when a journalist asked him (before Danny Kennedy pulled out) if he was only in the race to be deputy was priceless. However, in a couple of recent interviews I’ve heard John stumble and struggle to say that he’s going to be leader.

I want to be leader – or to stand for leader – to make the argument that the party basically stands at that crossroads: unionist unity or opposition. I’m very keen on saying that we should be in opposition, we should be using the time to rebuild, reconnect with voters, and listening to the views we heard tonight [John was on the panel at a Platform for Change event] from centre right people, centre left, how do you move away from solely [identity politics] to huge issues that confront all of us in our everyday life. And people that maybe aren’t as well off, or people who don’t have attained as good an education standard, how you make them part of our society, how you actually use the power of government for good to help people. That’s what government is about.

Would John be strategic as a leader of the UUP, a decisive leader?

Well I think in the past two weeks anytime I’ve been asked a question I’ve given a straight answer. In fact someone referred to me as shooting from the hip. Yes, I can make decisions and I won’t be afraid to make difficult decisions about where the UUP should be. I want us to put out a clear consistent message, deciding what the policy is and put that clearly and consistently. Even if it’s difficult. Even if it’s sometimes unpalatable the message people have to hear.

John was clear that even with a capable UUP team in the Assembly, it would be hard to “cover absolutely every corner of government”. Priorities would be “the carve up in education”, “the carve up in delivering the shared future society” (to move away from “the them and us culture” and “the separate but equal” policies), health, care of the elderly, mitigating against the effects of welfare reform, and how this gets funded.

Is the real change in unionist leadership not coming from the DUP and their softening of their policies on education, shared society, Gaelic games.

I think a lot of that is window dressing. Scratch beneath the surface and you will see the same old same old that you’ve seen for many years … Jump onto Ian McCrea’s website and you will see things like the Pope being the Antichrist. It might be a good photo op for Peter Robinson putting out that image, but you won’t have to scratch down far to you see the same old stuff coming out. So I welcome some of the move that they’re making but they have a huge distance to go.

The real change in leadership for me – and I’m the candidate that is offering that real change to the party – would be delivering on our game changer proposal from a year ago and saying that we’re going in to opposition to scrutinise the government and most importantly provide a real alternative at the next election. Normalising politics: this should be seen as something good and healthy for democracy.

Won’t the review of administration already planned for this assembly session inevitably bring about opposition? Isn’t John just jumping the gun my a few months or years?

I don’t think it is inevitable that that’s what will happen. I think what’s inevitable is that what the DUP and Sinn Fein want to happen …

Would they not want rid of you as a smaller party that clutters up the table?

Some people in my own party say will we be irrelevant? If the UUP was going to be irrelevant in opposition, do you not think the DUP would have done this five years ago? They would prefer us staying in there. I’m saying this is something we want to use the structures of Stormont to throw open the doors and look at what way they’re running Northern Ireland, and to hold them to account and scrutinise the policy and present an alternative … I don’t see them ever doing this or ever wanting to give the structures to this. And I’m prepared to go and make that fight and go on and speak to the media and be the leader of the opposition and keep firing those messages out that this is what we’re here to do, and to challenge, to scrutinise and be an alternative.

They will never legislate for this if we don’t keep pushing hard at the fight. There will never be a right time. We will always be waiting on something else to happen. We’ll wait another year or Mars and Jupiter need to be in line … we need to make this decision and go for what we believe in.

The leader of what opposition? A unionist opposition? An opposition for everyone in Northern Ireland?

I’d be the leader of the opposition because I’d be the leader of the largest opposition party in the Assembly. Our job is to go and scrutinise the government. Remember, bad policies will no matter if you’re unionist or nationalist, or where you live. If it’s a bad policy or if it’s a divisive sectarian policy based on a sectarian carve up by Sinn Fein and DUP it is not good governance. So it’s in none of our interests and we will throw a light onto that and that’s what we’ll be there to do.

Are there downsides to opposition?

Opposition is not going to be easy. Opposition is going to be difficult. Opposition is going to demand more of MLAs, of our staff team, in working in preparing, in asking the right questions, in making sure that guys on committees are up and fully briefed and up to the task in hand. And when we have debates, making sure we can really expose whatever minister it happens to be. Opposition is not some sort of easy comfort blanket. In fact, the opposite is true. The easy option, the soft option would be to stay in the Executive …

Unification with the DUP is out. But could John see the UUP running a candidate against the DUP in South East Belfast at the next Westminster election to try to get the seat of Naomi? Would he split the unionist vote?

Yes. The difficulty with electoral pacts – and a huge part the I blame that went wrong with the whole UCONF thing and there might have been many facets starting with the name – but one of the key things was we were going around telling everybody that we were a new modern inclusive, pluralist party wanting to reach out across the divide, and then we did a deal in Fermanagh & South Tyrone.

No electoral pacts. We will probably say transfer to pro-unionist parties …

[Alan] But in a Westminster election there are no transfers …

No. We will be standing and contesting seats. The interesting thing in the Fermanagh & South Tyrone experience: the unionist vote dropped by 7% and the Sinn Fein vote rose by 17%.

Unionist unity will drive nationalist unity and we will retrench to our sectarian them and us politics, almost effectively going to a single party with an orange wing and a green wing. It is not healthy for Northern Ireland. And you as a voter have never any way of getting rid of the government.

Does John resent that political talent from the party walked out the door after the botched tie-up?

I regret that we lost good people. Of course I do. I’m not resentful or bitter about it. People make decisions on their own. What I want to do is if I’m elected leader on Saturday is set a clear, distinct vision of the Ulster Unionist Party and if some of those people want to come back because I represent the values that they might share, they’d be welcome back with open arms.

The size of the mandate on Saturday morning is not an issue for John. A simple majority is all that is required.

Finally, why should UUP members vote for John on Saturday?

A very clear, distinct vision of where I want to take the Ulster Unionist Party. I haven’t been going over this campaign for the part two weeks with woolly language and saying “well we’ll look at these things, it’s all terribly difficult”. I haven’t been saying we should have a referendum on several different issues just to see what’s what. I’ve said we’re going into Opposition. We’re going to oppose and scrutinise. And we’re going to set a distinct agenda for ourselves to be the next government in Northern Ireland.

Behind John McCallister’s rural tones, there’s a thinker who is comfortable using the language of a more progressive politics. Opposition would change the rules and put the UUP onto the front foot. It would give them a reason to fight. John has kick started the party to imagine what they could do in opposition even if it’s not where the majority of members will feed comfortable going.

I held off posting for a few days in case Mike Nesbitt would make himself available for a similar interview, but the moment has now passed. In many ways the two candidates’ media coverage has been pretty saturated over the past two weeks.

In his inimitable manner, Eamonn Mallie tackled Mike Nesbitt for half an hour about a range of issues finishing with some very honest statements from Mike about his faith as a “struggling Christian”.

As the two and a half week campaign has gone on, Mike Nesbitt’s message has wobbled, gently shifting and at times tripping up. The more he talks, the more he sways. Sitting on the fence requires a lot more balance than John McCallister’s blustering approach.

Back in October at the party conference, Mike Nesbitt had a bit of a David Cameron moment and proposed the motion in the economic debate by abandoning the lectern and instead wandering around the stage speaking for the most part without notes. He closed with an economic vision, the kind of big idea that he has been keen to avoid talking about during the leadership campaign:

I’ll finish with a vision because people often say “oh, you unionists, you don’t have a vision, you don’t have a strategy, you don’t have a policy.” I’ll give you a vision for our economy …

We become net contributors to Her Majesty’s Treasury. We grow our private sector so it is so big, so powerful, so profitable we no longer need the block grant. It’s a big ask. It’s aspirational. But why not go for it conference? (applause) Why not go for that, be net contributors? If you want to secure the union, that’s a good way to start. Let’s grow our economy to the point where our GDP and our GVA are above the UK average.

Is that still his vision? It certainly didn’t get a public airing and any scrutiny during the campaign.

A yet despite the lack of big ideas, and despite the changing nuances around opposition and unionist unity – never mind attention grabbing statements to strangely jump feet first onto the RUC Athletics Association bandwagon – Mike Nesbitt has this election in the bag.

Mike Nesbitt at the controlsMike even had time on Wednesday to go “flying high above Ulster” with other members of the Education Committee who joined a cross-community school flight in a Bombardier Q400 aircraft.

His head may have been truly in the clouds, but it’s likely to be down to earth with a jolt when Mike Nesbitt has to steer himself and his party through the unpredictable politics ahead. The DUP will be sure to deny him any feeling of honeymoon, and will keep the thumbscrews on any UUP minister to limit any sense of UUP change or taking the initiative.

Neither has David McNarry gone away. I’ll be very surprised if one Strangford MLA won’t be spending next week sitting in the leader’s office in UUP HQ figuring out how the party can limit the damage the other Strangford MLA could yet still do.

Tough times ahead.

Update – Of course, John delivering his wife’s second baby before the ambulance or midwife arrived may also tick political boxes for ‘safe pair of hands’ and ‘good in a panic’ … Congratulations to Jane, John and Molly on the speedy arrival of baby Harry James McCallister.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.