North Down or Europe – tough choices for UUP

Last night the Ulster Unionist Party embarked on a series of consultation meetings at which Sir Reg Empey, the party leader, will explain what is happening in the ongoing talks with the Conservatives.

The first meeting was held in Dungannon's Cohannon Inn and others are planned for Coleraine and Belfast. Every party member has received an invitation following the last-minute decision to postpone the UUP conference, which was due to be addressed by David Cameron.

Behind the scenes, the word is that the deal is in deep trouble. Last Saturday, Sir Reg told the BBC "some people thought the Ulster Unionist Party was left at the side of the road for dead. Well we are not dead and we have these talks going on. If they work, they work, if they don't, they don't," he said.

That is hardly inspirational language, but Sir Reg now knows that he cannot give Cameron what he wants. Lady Sylvia Hermon, the UUP's sole MP, has made it crystal clear that she will neither take the Tory whip nor stand aside for another candidate.

When I spoke to Lady Hermon last week, she said she wouldn't comment on the Conservative Party until after the UUP's working group, of which she is a member, completes its report, but her unhappiness was clear.

She supports Labour. She backed Brown, and opposed the Tories, on the recent anti-terror legislation after he gave her a one to one briefing. She was impressed and she is still impressed by his handling of the economy.

"Gordon Brown has done terrifically well in handling this crisis and my confidence in him has been restored. He looks very much on top of things. There is a real bounce to his step these days and I am glad to see it," she told me.

"Bringing Peter Mandelson back was a stroke of genius which should unite the party. Let us see what happens the next time some lower ranking government official or whip steps out of line. Let's see how long they last," she added.

On the surface, North Down, the wealthiest constituency in Northern Ireland with a 'gin and jags' image, looks like a natural Conservative seat. The fact is that Hermon can hold it against all comers.

You only have to compare the results of the 2005 Westminster and local government elections, which were held on the same day. Hermon got 50 per cent of the Westminster vote, while in the council poll, UUP and Conservative candidates got just under half that (24.1 per cent) between them.

Even allowing for some bounce, if the two parties come together, the arithmetic is hard to get past. North Down may look like the nearest thing we have to a Tory shire, but it has a long history of voting for independents.

Take the precedent of Jim Kilfedder. He was elected as a UUP candidate in 1970, but left the party in 1979 in a row partly sparked by Enoch Powell's influence. Kilfedder held the seat until his unexpected death in 1995. His successor was Robert McCartney, who was elected despite being expelled from the UUP a few years earlier. At the time, he said he would take the Labour whip, but didn’t do so in the end.

According to the census, North Down is 82 per cent Protestant but, perhaps because of the absence of a real nationalist challenge, the place has a record of electing independent minded members with a liberal line on social issues who command cross-community support. Looking at the 2005 results, it is obvious that many who voted for parties like the SDLP, PUP, Alliance, the Greens and Women’s Coalition at local government level swung behind Hermon at Westminster.

So, if you are Sir Reg Empey, what do you do about a problem like Sylvia?

In one sense it shouldn’t be a problem. The seat is safe. All he has to do is stick with her – she could be his greatest asset.

However, two things could tempt to take her on. One is money. The UUP are selling their headquarters to move to a cheaper place for the second time – the party is badly strapped and the Tories are awash with cash.

The second problem is support. Next year Jim Nicholson faces a tough battle to retain the UUP’s European seat. He scraped in on DUP and SDLP transfers last time but next year the unionist field will be more crowded. The Tory endorsement could just keep him ahead.

If you were Sir Reg Empey which would you rather do, risk Europe or lose North Down?