Analysis: In the end, Dodds just didn’t want DUP leadership enough

Nigel Dodds and Nelson McCausland pictured coming through part of one of Belfast's peace lines, with Brian Kingston following
Nigel Dodds and Nelson McCausland pictured coming through part of one of Belfast's peace lines, with Brian Kingston following

Virtually everyone – bookmakers, pundits, and even many DUP members – was lulled into the belief that the identity of the next DUP leader was a done deal.

Now it appears that it still is a done deal, but the deal is rather different to that initially envisaged.

Crucially, Nigel Dodds’ dramatic decision to rule himself out as a possible leader has come at the 11th hour.

Nominations close tomorrow at 5pm and the vote on the new leader will be next Thursday, leaving scant time for a serious leadership campaign to be constructed.

Mr Dodds has declined several opportunities to rule himself out of the leadership, and at the DUP conference just over a fortnight ago there was an overwhelming belief that the new leadership team would consist of Mr Dodds as leader and Arlene Foster as First Minister.

It may be that Mr Dodds never believed he could do the job from Westminster (as his comments, reported by the News Letter a fortnight ago, show that he believed two years ago). But allowing the belief – both inside and outside the DUP – to grow that he would be leader only to withdraw at the last minute is very unusual.

The suspicion has to be that something has changed – and even lots of Mr Dodds’ supporters within the DUP are frustrated by what they see as his indecisiveness – since the initial announcement by Peter Robinson that he would be retiring.

Whatever has prompted Mr Dodds’ decision, it is easy to see the attractiveness of his current position.

Fêted at Westminster by both the Tories and Labour, the Cambridge-educated barrister has seemed at home in the Palace of Westminster.

With David Cameron’s wafer-thin majority likely to shrink over the course of the next four-and-a-half years, the DUP’s influence is almost certain to grow.

And with the bulk of Northern Ireland powers at Stormont, our MPs face few awkward questions from journalists.

By contrast, the next DUP leader is taking on a party which on current support levels faces the prospect of losing seats next year after the phenomenal 2011 achievement of taking 35 per cent of the Assembly seats on 30 per cent of the vote.

And it is a party which has proved much more difficult to be led than under Ian Paisley, with internal spats now more frequently emerging into public.

Any successful leader needs to begin by at least wanting the job. If Mr Dodds wanted the job at all, he clearly didn’t want it enough.