THE Ulster Unionist Party approaches its annual conference today in election mode, with the former government party in Northern Ireland now officially aligned with those who may form the next Westminster regime.
The formation of a UUP/Tory alliance may seem good strategy to UUP leader Sir Reg Empey, but support for the move is far from unanimous in party ranks, not just for ideological political standpoints.
With a General Election looming in nine months, work has begun in selecting candidates for the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies and it appears that whoever is selected for the UUP will have to submit themselves to the Conservative Party in London.
This political deal agreed with prospective Prime Minister David Cameron is geared towards providing Ulster Unionists with a say at the heart of a Westminster Government, with UUP MPs, if elected, pledged to take the Tory whip.
This twin-party development may have some benefits for unionism, but the clear downside is that inevitably governments over a period of time become unpopular with policies and measures not in tune with the broad UK electorate. In such a situation, the UUP position would certainly not be advanced in their heartland constituencies.
Support for mainland parties in Northern Ireland has historically never been anything other than marginal and, in successive elections here, the Tories, fielding candidates, have been massively rejected by the broad swathe of unionist opinion, which prefers the indigenous UUP and DUP brand of pro-British politics.
Selection of UUP/Tory candidates for a 2010 General Election would appear to be the real test of this unprecedented political alignment and, ominously, the crunch could come in the North Down constituency, where Lady Sylvia Hermon, as the sole UUP MP and not a natural Tory politician, defends her seat.
The Tories have already selected a candidate and, if Lady Hermon is adamant that she cannot subscribe to the new dispensation with the Tories, will the UUP deselect her and run the risk of humiliation if she decides to stand as an independent unionist?