WHEN Mike Nesbitt trounced John McCallister in the leadership election the party was sending a clear message.
They didn’t want any more risk-taking strategies (like McCallister’s Opposition option): they wanted a media-savvy, high-profile leader who would be coherent and articulate. It didn’t matter that he had ‘no big idea or quick fixes’, they just wanted someone who sounded and looked good and who could appeal to that swathe of the pro-Union family who had disconnected and stopped voting.
It’s worth remembering that Nesbitt succeeded Tom Elliott, who had come under enormous pressure after news broke that he had authorised David McNarry (and others) to discuss closer cooperation with the DUP. When he resigned as leader, Elliott pointed the finger at those ‘internal critics’ who weren’t giving him a chance to ‘develop strategies’. Shortly after he became leader Nesbitt pushed for disciplinary action against McNarry, insisting that he had no interest in building a close relationship with the DUP: ‘Under my leadership the UUP will be a separate entity with its own clear identity, policies and candidates.’
So it’s ironic that Basil McCrea and John McCallister (and it seems inevitable that others will follow) have resigned because they believe that the UUP is ‘far too close, far too cosy with the DUP’. Both have pointed to the joint leaflet campaign against the Alliance Party, the Unionist Forum and the unity candidate in Mid Ulster: arguing that the UUP and DUP are closer now than ever before.
Will their defection hurt Nesbitt? His hope must be that it’s a one-day-wonder in news terms and that the talk of a new party will amount to very little as the media loses interest and there is no mass exodus from the UUP. Their departure may actually strengthen his hand, because it means there is now no focal point of discontent within the party – particularly within the Assembly group.
Conversely, it could further weaken him. He doesn’t enjoy unanimous support among his remaining MLAs and some may now feel emboldened to challenge him on ‘pet’ issues and concerns. Put bluntly, he cannot afford to lose another one, having already lost three since he became leader!
So, what happens now for the UUP? If they are to survive as a credible, stand-alone political/electoral force then they need to set out a clear role, relevance, purpose and direction for themselves. Nesbitt needs to explain to voters – his own and others – what the difference is between his party and the DUP. Most evidence indicates that when people don’t fully appreciate the differences between two broadly similar parties they tend to gravitate to the larger, better organised, most likely to win party.
Yet it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he really is happier to steer the UUP towards the DUP rather than away from them. And in doing that he’s already taking major hits. He’s also forcing voters and the media to look closely at both parties and that seems to be leading many of them to the opinion that there is no difference between them: an impression that is much more helpful to the DUP.
Which may explain why the DUP is perfectly happy to welcome an increasingly close relationship with the UUP – rather than just let them wither on the electoral vine.
Peter Robinson has made a number of recent speeches in which he appeared to be reaching out to those who would not be ‘traditional unionists’. Yet there does appear to be evidence (some of which was seen when DUP representatives rejected his advice not to get involved in the flags protests) that a key section of the DUP is not keen on that reaching out process. Instead, they would prefer to reach out to the unionist (in party political terms) family and build new structures of unionist unity.
Robinson has no difficulty with that, of course. It represents the best of both worlds for him: bringing his primary electoral rival into his orbit, while ensuring that the numbers of unionist representatives is (or so he hopes) maximised. There are advantages for Nesbitt, too, who would hope to benefit from the very considerable numbers of transfer votes which are in the gift of the DUP. Over half of the UUP MLAs in the 2011 election were elected on the last or second last counts and even a small percentage slip would rob the party of four or five seats. So a deal or electoral pact with the DUP could be a crucial factor in the UUP’s survival.
And maybe that survival is what all of the ongoing realignment is really about. If Nesbitt has calculated that the UUP needs DUP votes to survive and if Robinson is convinced that there remains an element of the unionist vote that only the UUP can attract, then it is in the interests of both men and both parties to cut a substantial deal with each other. Everything, from the Alliance leaflets, to the Unionist Forum, to the Mid Ulster candidate suggests that the future of both parties is intertwined as never before. Where that leaves the so-called ‘moderates’ of unionism is anyone’s guess: but it now seems inevitable that a new political party will be created to attract them. And that, of course, is the ultimate irony: the drive towards unionist unity has resulted in another split!
Read Alex Kane’s column every Monday and follow him every day on Twitter: @AlexKane221b