JUST two years after he joined the Ulster Unionist Party, Mike Nesbitt became its leader in a landslide victory on Saturday.
The former journalist, PR man and victims’ commissioner won more than 80 per cent of the votes cast by Ulster Unionist members who gathered in Belfast’s Ramada Hotel.
It had been widely anticipated that Mr Nesbitt would win and, with the support of almost the entire party establishment, one bookmaker stopped taking bets on a Nesbitt victory just days after the Strangford MLA announced that he was standing.
But there was shock among many members on Saturday at the scale of his triumph over South Down MLA John McCallister, who was widely acknowledged to have done well during a campaign in which he largely set the agenda.
When the result – 129 votes for Mr McCallister and 536 votes for Mr Nesbitt - was read out by party chairman David Campbell, there were murmurs around the room.
Mr Nesbitt’s victory dwarfed that of Tom Elliott, who defeated Basil McCrea 18 months ago by taking 68 per cent of the vote.
Attendance at Saturday’s Annual General Meeting was considerably down on the last leadership contest in 2010.
Then, in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, there were 939 votes cast. On Saturday, that figure had dropped by almost 30 per cent to 668.
There were actually more than that present — the party said about 850 — but only those who were party members for more than six months and had paid their dues before the contest was called were eligible to vote.
There were three spoilt ballot papers, one of which is understood to have had the name of David McNarry – the former UUP MLA now suspended from the party for nine months – written on it.
In 2010 the outgoing leader, Lord Empey, did not even attend the vote and was careful not to be seen to back either candidate.
But on Saturday the outgoing leader, Tom Elliott, was present at the Ramada Hotel and, along with Mr Nesbitt – who 18 months ago was his campaign manager - shook hands with UUP members from Fermanagh and South Tyrone as they descended from several buses.
Each candidate had just 22 minutes in which to make their speech and take questions from the floor.
Copies of the speeches were given to the media – who were kept outside the hall until the result was to be announced – and the consensus among reporters was that on paper Mr McCallister’s speech was by far the better.
However, those inside the hall said that Mr Nesbitt’s speech – which he delivered while moving around on the stage – came across better than Mr McCallister’s.
Mr Nesbitt used his speech to confirm that if he was voted leader he would be appointing his own party chairman – something which Mr McCallister had said during the campaign that he would do — to replace Mr Campbell, who has held the post for seven years.
During questions from members, Mr Nesbitt was asked whether he would join the Orange Order.
And, according to those inside the room, Mr Nesbitt also was asked about Opposition and reassured some of those open to the idea by telling them that although he would stay in the executive he was planning to scrutinise the DUP and Sinn Fein from within.
Mr McCallister was joined at the meeting by his wife, Jane, and two-day old baby son Harry James, whom he helped to deliver on his bathroom floor on Thursday.
Immediately after the result had been announced, Mr McCallister rose to congratulate the new leader and, in a brief speech, he pledged his loyalty to the new leader.
“The way the leadership election has been conducted has, I think, been worthwhile, has been good for the party and it has been good to have the debate between Mike and myself.
“It has actually energised the party - look at the room today, look at the buzz going round, look at the interest in the party.”
Mr McCallister joked that when outgoing leader Tom Elliott had commiserated with him moments before he had responded: “Mike’s the one in real trouble.”
“Mike, my hearty congratulations to you. It has been a pleasure working with you in the Assembly over the past year and I look forward to continuing to work and support and grow the party im whatever role or way that I can do that.”
Mr Nesbitt then took to the stage and, after sustained applause, told members: “You have placed a great honour on me but you have also done something else - you have placed your trust in me and I’m accepting that challenge today.
“I said earlier that this was about more than about where 15 people go on Monday morning and it is. You know now where I want to take us and how to measure whether I am successful or not.
“I want to thank John for the way he’s conducted his campaign in this election.
“Let nobody doubt John’s commitment to our party or his belief in our ability to build a vibrant, safe and cohesive Northern Ireland.
“Like John, I want a shared and not a shared out future.”
Mr Nesbitt said that in the next few days he would speak to his defeated rival and assured him that he had a role in the party under him.
Mr Nesbitt said that he had wondered whether the party would accept as leader someone who had “less than three years under his belt as a party member but your answer was simple and inspiring: It was not a problem”.
Mr Nesbitt said that in doing so the members had “transformed” the UUP’s image and added: “At this moment I call on everyone - man, woman, young, old, urban, rural, Protestant, Catholic, who would like to serve as an elected politician to join this party because we fast-track people in the Ulster Unionist Party.”
Mr Nesbitt appealed for loyalty, trust and discipline from UUP members and added: “Today, in your votes, you have empowered us to say that the last 14 years are over.”
The new UUP leader finished his acceptance speech by thanking his wife, Lynda Bryans, “the person who has paid the greatest personal price for my political journey”.