It was last night unclear if there will be a contest for the DUP leadership following Peter Robinson’s decision to step down – but if there is, it will be senior elected representatives who decide the winner.
In more than four decades since the DUP was founded, the party has never had a leadership contest and its sole leadership transition saw Mr Robinson assume the reins of power unopposed after Ian Paisley’s sudden retirement in 2008.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds is the overwhelming favourite to succeed Peter Robinson as DUP leader.
However, if Mr Dodds faces a challenger for the post it will be for the party’s MPs, MLAs and MEP to vote on who should lead the party.
Those rules – which, unlike the vast majority of parties, give rank and file members no say in how the leader is chosen – mean that even if there is a contest there is unlikely to be much public debate of the sort which was seen recently in the SDLP.
Rather, candidates would be likely to privately seek to persuade the 46 other members who are eligible to vote.
As reported by the News Letter three weeks ago, there is a widespread belief within the DUP that the roles of First Minister and leader will be separated, as happens in Sinn Fein. Yesterday Mr Robinson did nothing to play down that speculation.
The overwhelming favourite to succeed Mr Robinson as First Minister is Arlene Foster, who is also seen as his preferred successor in the role, as she epitomises the ‘new DUP’ which Mr Robinson has sought to create out of a party once dominated by members of the Free Presbyterian Church.
However, other senior figures who have support within the party include former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, who some party members believe could unify the warring factions within the DUP.
There are even rumours that Mr Wilson could return to the Assembly – something which would require his resignation as an MP, the resignation of a DUP MLA and Mr Wilson’s co-option back into the Assembly – to take the First Minister’s role.
When asked if he was interested in the leadership last night, the East Antrim MP said: “I knew that you were going to ask that question, and I have said time and time again that until there is the leadership contest I’ll not be saying anything about what I’m doing.”
When asked about the deputy leadership, he said: “Peter Robinson is still the leader. The party will make a decision as to when and how things are going to change and I’m not saying what I’m going to do or what I’m not going to do.”
Gregory Campbell is another figure who some on the right of the party would like to see in a leadership role, perhaps as deputy leader.
When it was put to the East Londonderry MP and MLA on the Nolan Show yesterday that it was a done deal that Nigel Dodds will be leader and Arlene Foster the First Minister, he replied: “I don’t think it’s helpful to speculate, and as it’s not helpful to speculate I don’t intend to do it.”
When asked if he would run for the top job, Mr Campbell was evasive, saying: “Don’t ask a question that leaves itself open to a number of interpretations”.
Bookmakers Paddy Power have installed Mr Dodds as the 1/6 favourite to become the next DUP leader, ahead of Mrs Foster at 7/2 and Mr Wilson at 8/1.
Mrs Foster is the bookies’ overwhelming 1/12 favourite to become First Minister, followed by Simon Hamilton at 11/2 and Ian Paisley Jr at 20/1.