Having just done something which his party membership is applauding, it may seem extraordinary that Peter Robinson’s future as DUP leader is being questioned.
But the brutal reality of politics is that leaders who abandon big policies after months of doggedly defending them are often seen as weak.
In recent years Mr Robinson has ruled with an iron grasp of his party, supremely confident that he faces no serious challengers from either within or without the party.
But not since the crisis following BBC Spotlight’s revelations about his wife’s business dealings three-and-a-half years ago has there been such rampant speculation about Mr Robinson’s future.
Even prior to Wednesday night’s political bombshell about the Maze U-turn there had been speculation in recent weeks about a future DUP leadership contest, with briefings from some in the DUP that former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson is attracting increasing support to be Mr Robinson’s successor.
Yesterday Mr Wilson defended his leader’s decision. But, in an extraordinary interview with the BBC’s Stephen Nolan, he declined chances to deny that he had a “stand-up row” with Mr Robinson. The BBC presenter said he had been contacted by a “very senior” DUP member claiming Mr Wilson had the argument and had told his leader he had to abandon the Maze proposals.
Asked if that was true, Mr Wilson – who earlier in the interview said that he had “argued it out” with Mr Robinson for a “long time” – said that he and Mr Robinson “have discussions about many things and we don’t always immediately agree”.
Asked a third time about the claim, Mr Wilson said: “I will not respond to anonymous tittle-tattle which is passed on to you by someone else in the party.”
Although he later insisted that Mr Robinson was not pressured into his decision, Mr Wilson appeared to confirm that various letters had circulated between senior party members before Mr Robinson’s letter was published on Wednesday night though he denied that they had been radically different to that released by Mr Robinson.
Last night the DUP press office released a statement from Mr Wilson which said: “Tales of rows and so-called ‘back me or sack me’ letters are simply the wishful thinking of those who cannot compete with the strategy and vision put in place by Peter Robinson and who would seek to undermine the full support he has from everyone within the party.”
Talk of letters being circulated among DUP members at a time when the leader is weakened will for many senior DUP figures evoke memories of how Ian Paisley was levered out of office. Though it would be astonishing if such a move against Mr Robinson was imminent, it is no longer as absurd a prospect as it would once have seemed.