Both Tom and Basil could kill off party

THE Ulster Unionist Party's worst ever result was the 2007 assembly election. Basil McCrea was a party officer at the time.

Indeed, Basil has been a party officer, a member of the Executive committee, a Westminster candidate, an MLA, a senior party spokesman and a member of a number of key delegations. He's not quite the anti-establishment figure he would have you believe.

At his leadership launch he said that "the party will fight the next assembly elections on the basis that a vote for the UUP is a vote to remove Ruane". Doesn't that sound remarkably similar to the DUP's 2007 mantra, 'It's the DUP or Sinn Fein'? So while Basil won't have a pact with them, he is prepared to re-heat and re-serve their campaign slogans.

McCrea insists that education is 'the' issue for him. Odd then, that in his time as the UUP's education spokesman he has failed - inside and outside the assembly - to construct an effective coalition against Ruane, let alone produce a costed, joined-up alternative to her policies. And while he says that the UUP will 'take the education ministry as first choice' he has, for some reason, ruled himself out as the potential minister. It's the key issue in his launch, but it's clearly not so important that he would tackle the job himself.

He says that 'the party officer team will go', yet he doesn't say who will run the party. He says that discipline will be 'robustly enforced', but doesn't say how or for what reasons. He says there will be 'firm direction', yet doesn't indicate to which point of the political compass he will be taking the party.

He reckons that recovery lies in making the party moderate and pluralist. But that army of moderates - supposedly somewhere out there - didn't rally behind David Trimble. They didn't rally behind the pan-UK pluralism of UCUNF. Actually, the slate of candidates endorsed by the UUP at the general election was probably the most liberal, moderate and pluralist bunch that unionism has ever produced. Yet they delivered the lowest ever number of votes and not a single seat.

Also, it's a mistake to assume that the stay-at-homes are definitely moderates. Has no one considered the possibility that they aren't voting because they regard the main unionist parties as surrender-fuelled roll-overs? The more moderate the UUP is perceived to be, the less votes it gets.

Yes, there are pro-Union voters out there who aren't voting, but there is little evidence that they want more liberalism and pluralism. When David Trimble became leader the party had a broader range of membership and voter base - including the middle and business classes. Yet they seem to be the very people who left as the party became increasingly liberal. A leader whose pitch is geared towards those people is on a hiding to nothing. So it seems to me that Basil has misread the problems facing the party and, consequently, is offering the wrong solutions.

Meanwhile, Tom Elliott wants the voters who left the UUP for the DUP. But what's he offering? He can't swing to the right in case he bumps into the TUV. He can’t swing to the left, in case he collides with an increasingly buoyant Alliance Party. If he stays where he is then there is a danger that he will only be offering a better-managed decline of the party.

But it strikes me that Tom has a better grasp of the roots and traditions of the UUP: and I think he realises that a re-building and reaching-out project can only begin when you have shored up your existing base. The danger of making the UUP a comfortable place for newcomers is that you make it an uncomfortable place for existing members and voters. And if it is true that non-voting unionists are looking for a unionism which hasn’t been watered down to make itself more appealing to a smorgasbord of lukewarm, ambivalent, Irish-dimension and non-unionists, then Tom is also a better bet.

My own feeling is that the UUP grassroots just want to belong to a party that starts winning votes and seats again. They want a party which adopts a strategy and sees it through. They don’t want more excitement, upheaval, overhaul, reviews or bold new ventures: they have had enough of that over the last decade. They want someone who can begin a process of consolidation, not more internal division.

My problem with Basil - and I talked to him during the campaign - is that I expected so much more from him. If you present yourself as a voice and vehicle for change then you have a duty to spell out, in fairly precise detail, what that change will be. With him it has been mostly wind and woof. It’s sometimes hard to avoid the conclusion that the leadership is actually secondary to just winning. Or. as he put it, ‘of course there are other things that I want to do, but that is for another day’. But maybe his putting off for ‘another day’ has something to do with the fact that he hasn’t actually thought through or thought out his endgame?

Neither he nor Tom seem to have a grand strategy, let alone a consistent and entirely coherent plan for political and electoral recovery. Both of them represent huge risks for the party and both, albeit for different reasons, could kill it off. That said, the membership has a choice to make. An old friend - and lifelong member of the UUP - summed it up for me: “Basil speaks well and knows how to handle an interview. But when it is all over you can never be certain what he said or where he stands. Tom is not great on his feet or in the studio, but when he’s finished you know where he stands.”

That seems to me to be a fairly canny and pretty accurate summing up of the differences between them. If I had a vote on Wednesday I would vote for Tom. There are obvious weaknesses, but there is also a core of steel: and the weaknesses can be countered by stretching across the party and surrounding himself with thinkers and spokesmen. For me - and I have had to work with both men - it boils down to this: my experience of Tom is that he will listen to others and always act in the best interests of the UUP. I couldn’t say the same of Basil.