UUP conference – a party in love with their new leader #UUP21

Doug Beattie is in a good place. His party’s one minister in the NI Executive has a level of trust and reliability second only to Father Christmas. This gives the party leader some space to manoeuvrer, reaching out in different directions, exploring which messages resonate amongst UUP voters, potential switchers from Alliance and the DUP, and perhaps most valuably from non-voters.

Party members praise his chairing of internal meetings. They say he uses his ears as much as his mouth. He heeds advice. He’s conscious of needing to bring most of his broad church of members with him as he tweaks the image of the party. Members describe the feeling of hope that Beattie’s ambition is giving them: his pacing is good, not racing too far ahead, not undermining core traditional values or afraid to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary, but never going to wrap himself in a flag and think that’s enough to deserve a vote. Maybe some members are going along with Beattie because they know the party was entering the last chance saloon, but most seem to believe he’s the leader they need. There’s a tangible sense of relief. And it’s the happiest unionist event in Crowne Plaza hotel this year!

The UUP party political broadcast was a slick advert to position the UUP’s current appeal to voters. And the fact it triggered less confident unionists to criticise the UUP means more people have seen and heard it. A perfect result for the investment. Jim Wells has perhaps unwittingly become a UUP recruiting sergeant.

The real challenge for Beattie is that it’s easy to be a confident, liberal unionist in October 2021. But when the pressure increases amid a fractious election campaign, the UUP is very vulnerable to being stressed by a call to protect wider unionism (which perceives itself to be under constant threat by changing demographics and vulnerability in the face of what it might mean not to have a party at the top of the tree). Vote DUP to keep Sinn Féin out of the First Minister’s office. Vote UUP, get Sinn Féin. It will be unrelenting. And over their other shoulder sits the Alliance Party.

In his first leaders speech, Beattie reminded delegates that the First and deputy First Ministers roles are co-equal. However, there are limits to how far and how often he can say this: the optics would be poor for him to say too loudly that he’d be happy to serve as a deputy First Minister. That would be too honest and ignore unionism’s ever-present daemons, and attract demotivating blue-on-blue fire. Beattie calls on the party not to retaliate to “fence-kickers” who try to get the UUP dog to bark. That will require incredible discipline once the next campaign properly kicks off.

Beattie worked his way up the non-commissioned ranks to become a Captain in the British Army. His speech today outlined his small house unionist background, his itinerant schooling, his range of service (from guarding Rudolf Hess in Spandau prison in Berlin to eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East). There’s a distinct lack of entitlement in his demeanour.

If Beattie can hold his nerve, avoid bitter retaliation when the DUP take easy swipes, then he might just be the leader that the UUP have needed for the last 11 years. He has gently attracted figures back into the party who don’t suffer fools gladly and have well-tuned BS detectors.

If the messaging and mood at today’s party conference continues, the UUP are well placed to maximise their success at the next election.

But what does success look like?

His slate of Assembly candidates will be deliberately diverse, with the party taking a risk on untested figures (who themselves are taking quite a risk on the party) over party staff who’ve served their time. That’s a gamble. Short of a voter tsunami, it’s unrealistic to expect the UUP to overtake a weakened DUP. Can Beattie even run enough candidates? If unionism doesn’t regain the first ministry, will any UUP gains taste sour?

All will be revealed in May 2022 … or earlier if the other new unionist leader follows through on his threat to collapse the Assembly.