Even the scale of Mike Nesbitt’s victory surprised some of his supporters. Slugger understands they were already confident of a 60-40 margin, but 81-19 was a resounding victory. He should not have any of the problems of his predecessor. Indeed, the major theme his acceptance speech was that party loyalty is a two way affair.
He avoided the cock up of Alasdair McDonnell’s SDLP leadership, though in that regard Tom Elliott’s hasty exit meant there was no big media occasion to fluff. In two years he has convinced his party that he is the safe pair of hands and gone from unsuccessful Westminster bid, Assembly seat to party leader.
That’s a pretty meteoric rise.
The consensus in the press pack was that John McCallister had the better speech on paper but that for once the big occasion got to him and his deliver did not live up to the standard of the content. Maybe it was the knowledge that despite running by far the better public campaign, he simply did not have the votes in the hall.
Which brings us to the real nub of the problem for the party going forward. What does the election of Mike Nesbitt mean for the future of the party. And why, despite consistently better performances on tv, did the party choose Mike over John in such overwhelming numbers?
This matters beyond the anorak’s typical obsession with inconsequential detail for the sake of it. And the answer may not actually be to either’s liking.
One idea got its outing more than any other, ie the idea of taking the party into opposition. John McCallister got his answer lound and clear from the party membership: NO THANKS! We might consider the Ulster Unionist horses well and truly frightened.
Nesbitt, in fact was one of the early figures associated with the idea of going into Opposition. It is still popular amongst some of the rising members of the party, and the suggestion that it is now off the agenda for the foreseeable future, let’s just say, is not exactly appreciated.
Disappointingly for the political press, the UUP’s flirtation with political sedition and the idea that they might have something resembling local politics to report is over. Nesbitt wants to stay around for a while. The next election is not until the Euros in 2014, and then there’s a whole flurry of them.
None of his rivals will be in any position to challenge him before then. He has time and space to build. But the question still remains, what exactly will he build? His answer will have to be good, not least not just because Peter Robinson has just raised the bar for all Unionist leaders.
For now, he has achieved what few of his predecessors have managed, ie to get near unanimous support within the party. At some point he will have to move… And as the political historian Christopher Farringdon has pointed out, consolidation in the UUP is relatively easy affair. Just so long as you don’t actually threaten to do anything.