To paraphrase Charles Dickens (whom he was fond of quoting): “Mike Nesbitt was the best of leaders, he was the worst of leaders.”
He was elected UUP leader five years ago – with a huge mandate – on the back of a promise that he would steady the ship, clarify the message, handle the media, tighten the structures and instill discipline. Rather than recommending yet another political risk (his opponent, John McCallister, had said he would take the party out of the Executive ‘within hours’ if he won) Nesbitt set out a game plan built around, ‘a recovery based on two electoral cycles over eight to 10 years.’
At the time, his pitch made sense to a party battered by ongoing internecine warfare and a seemingly unstoppable spiralling downwards of support – although I argued that he wasn’t paying enough attention to the core issues of role, relevance, purpose and specific direction for the party. But a year after their worst ever electoral result in the 2011 Assembly election, the UUP grassroots just wanted someone who looked as though they could deliver victory. He was that person.
In fairness to him he did steady the ship, tighten the structures and instill discipline. He let David McNarry, Basil McCrea and John McCallister go and he took a pretty hard line against a couple of troublesome UUP peers. The leaks that had bedevilled the party for years were sourced and sealed. And although the results of the 2014 Euro and council results were hardly spectacular, they were enough to persuade the party that recovery had begun. Indeed, between the end of 2013 and the spring of 2016, particularly after the return of Danny Kinahan and Tom Elliott to Westminster in 2015, members and representatives were more buoyant than I had seen them for years.
Yet – and again, I mentioned it a few times in this column – it seemed to me that there remained an inconsistency in the message. Nesbitt may have taken a very tough approach to the DUP in his speeches and he certainly accused them of cosying up to Sinn Fein; yet he also allowed the UUP to remain in their orbit. He co-sponsored the Unionist Forum with Peter Robinson in January 2013, an organisation that brought together representatives from unionist parties/groups (including those with links to paramilitaries). He supported a pact in 2015 which saw the UUP/DUP gang up against Sinn Fein and Alliance. He never seemed able to make up his mind where the UUP stood on parading issues.
In a series of interviews since he stood down as leader he insists that there wasn’t any inconsistency or mixed messaging. But that doesn’t explain why the UUP did worse in the 2016 Assembly election than it had done in 2011. It doesn’t explain why the UUP lost six MLAs on March 2. It doesn’t explain why Alliance is outperforming the UUP in constituencies with a sizeable ‘soft’ unionist presence, or why Alliance is now just two seats and 30,000 votes behind the UUP in the Assembly. It doesn’t explain why so many potential existing voters are clearly unwilling to switch to the UUP; or why so many first-time voters weren’t prepared to back them. If inconsistency and mixed messages are not to blame for the catastrophic results of 2016/17, then what is?
There are two other possibilities. It may be that unionists really are spooked by the possibility of a Sinn Fein first minister; and if that is the case then it seems likely that they’ll continue to vote for the unionist party which is best able to prevent it. Or – and this is a much more difficult problem for the UUP – it may be the case that a significant section of their core vote isn’t comfortable with the ‘Vote Mike and you get Colum’ strategy. In other words, they’ll always prefer a relationship with the DUP to any sort of cross-community relationship. Whatever Mike thinks, his ‘transfer’ comments to Mark Carruthers did cost the UUP votes. And it probably cost them seats. It certainly cost him his leadership.
Again, in fairness to him, the UUP/SDLP relationship made sense – particularly since they were both in opposition – and might have delivered electoral dividends if there hadn’t been a snap election. That said, he made a huge blunder in his interview with Carruthers: because he hadn’t prepared either Eastwood or UUP candidates and he also exposed whopping differences of opinion when some of those candidates refused to endorse his line. Whether he is prepared to acknowledge the fact is now immaterial; yet the fact remains that the remainder of the campaign was dogged by accusations of mixed messaging.
Nesbitt discovered what O’Neill, Chichester-Clark, Faulkner, West, Molyneaux, Trimble, Empey and Elliott discovered before him: the UUP is enormously difficult to lead. On many occasions I think his heart and head were both in the right place, yet he still seemed unwilling to follow the logic of head and heart. He allowed himself to be nudged towards intra-unionist deals that, while electorally convenient in the short term, were always going to be detrimental to the UUP in the long term.
He has left his successor with precisely the same problem he faced when he became leader: how do you recover from the party’s worst-ever result? Indeed, it’s the same problem that Empey and Elliott faced in 2005 and 2010. Whoever succeeds him begins with three enormous challenges: does the UUP return to the Executive; does it prioritise unionist unity; does it continue the relationship with the SDLP? Huge, huge challenges: anyone of which could tear the party down the middle.