AE17: A High-Stakes Election for Mike Nesbitt & the UUP

Whilst much of the focus has rightly been on Arlene Foster as the unionist leader feeling the heat in this election campaign on account of the RHI context and her leading role in delivering that catastrophic initiative, Mike Nesbitt could actually be the unionist political leader under the more severe pressure to step aside if the Unionist electorate fail to move in decisive numbers away from Arlene Foster’s DUP and to UUP candidates in order to prevent the Ulster Unionists from being the party which loses out the most from the reduction in overall Assembly seats from 108 to 90.

As things stand, the Ulster Unionists would be favourite to lose no fewer than 6 of their 16 seats due to the relative electoral position they found themselves in at respective constituency levels following last year’s Assembly elections.

The table below illustrates the point. The UUP have a real battle on their hands to simply return with the proportionally equivalent number of seats (13.3) that they currently hold in the Assembly. For them to do so, the intra-unionist swing away from the DUP and to the UUP will need to be quite significant in a number of pivotal constituencies.

With quotas rising to 16.7%, up from the 14.3% figure in the 6-seat constituencies, the party candidates and strategists will know that they face an uphill struggle to hold on to these six seats.

In each case, the UUP will only be able to hold their vulnerable seats at the expense of DUP candidates (although Fermanagh South Tyrone could still be held if unionist turnout and transfer rates prove to be vastly superior to that registered by the larger nationalist electorate.)

 Constituency 2016 UUP Vote (%) MLAs 2011 UUP Vote (%) MLAs
Strangford 6,367 (19.5%) 2 6,046 (20.4%) 2
North Antrim 4,406 (10.7%) 1 4,707 (11.7%) 1
East Belfast 4,142 (11.1%) 1 3,137 (9.7%) 1
Fermanagh South Tyrone 6,028 (12.8%) 1 9,262 (19.3%) 1
Lagan Valley 8,247 (21.2%) 2 7,253 (20.4%) 1
Upper Bann 9,884 (21.6%) 2 10,426 (24.6%) 2

From an Ulster Unionist standpoint, the corresponding figures for votes and % share taken by party candidates in the same constituencies in 2011 (see table) demonstrates how significant the swing needs to be in order for the party to upset the odds and hold on to seats in even just three of the six constituencies concerned to return with proportionally the same tally of seats.

The unknown factor is the impact of the RHI scandal within the unionist community, and how much that will play on the minds of unionists as they cast their votes.

In 2011 and then 2016, the DUP established and maintained a level of superiority – in electoral terms- within the unionist community which has meant that significant movement will be required from the DUP to UUP in order to impact on overall seat tallies in a way that can cause potentially fatal damage for the leadership of Arlene Foster.

In real terms, the DUP should be on course to return in a proportional sense with 31-32 seats (down from 38.)

However, if a significant shift does occur within the unionist bloc, then that overall tally of seats for the DUP could slip to below the psychologically important 30 figure required to trigger a petition of concern without the support of any other party.

In that event, the likely winners will be Mike Nesbitt’s Ulster Unionist Party, who will stand a much greater chance of holding on to at least half of the six vulnerable seats identified above. Returning with less than thirty seats will be a disaster for the DUP, and pressure could build for a wounded Arlene Foster to be replaced.

If Mike Nesbitt fails, and the party does not electorally capitalize in what must constitute the most conducive of campaign environments conceivable for his party (given the turmoil besetting the DUP in recent months), then Nesbitt’s five year tenure as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, which began in March 2012, could come to a quick end.