A SENIOR Conservative has sensationally called into question his party's pact with the Ulster Unionists because it could damage the pro-Union vote in marginal constituencies.
MP for Macclesfield, Sir Nicholas Winterton, raised his doubts about the merit of the Tory-UUP alliance in Westminster constituencies where a divided unionist vote will probably allow Sinn Fein or the SDLP to retain a seat.
Sir Nicholas, often controversial and outspoken, was speaking over the weekend at a dinner to mark ex-DUP leader Ian Paisley's 40 years in Parliament.
He said: "It is only a rejuvenated and purposeful Conservative and Unionist Party, in alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party here in Ulster, which is in a position to highlight the threat to our nation posed by the Government's reckless and ill-thought-out constitutional vandalism."
This was a reference to the potential break-up of the Union under devolution and the rise of nationalism in Scotland and Wales.
But he added: "I am concerned that the arrangement now being entered into between the Conservatives and Unionist Party and the Official Unionists (UUP) in Northern Ireland will divide the vote in marginal constituencies and serve only to let in Sinn Fein.
"Those that seek to divide are doing a disservice to the unionist cause.
"We have a duty not to turn our backs on the unionist people of Northern Ireland whose loyalty to our Queen and country I have never doubted.
"That loyalty should be honoured and reciprocated – but never betrayed."
Sir Nicholas was apparently taking the side of the DUP and upping the pressure on his Tory colleagues amid the squabbling over whether or not to field single unionist candidates at a General Election in south Belfast and in Fermanagh and south Tyrone.
The DUP and UUP have still not had talks over an electoral pact despite the idea being tabled 18 months ago.
The Tories have made it clear they intend to stand in every constituency in the UK at the next Westminster poll, emphasising their credentials as the party of the Union and the UK.
And this has left the UUP looking likely to embark on a course of not agreeing single candidates in marginal seats – although no official decision has been announced.
The Tory Party argues, however, that as it and the UUP will be combined in Ulster, they should look at the potential for having maybe 300-plus unionists in the next Parliament, rather than only focusing on the two seats.