Opinion: Elliott doing right thing by handing over poisoned chalice

SO, another UUP leader bites the dust. Just 18 months after his sweeping victory over Basil McCrea in the autumn of 2010 Tom Elliott has decided to stand down, writes Alex Kane.

He says that he continues to enjoy the support of most of the party’s membership (which is probably true) and he would almost certainly have beaten any challenger.

Yet he has still reached the conclusion that he has had enough. Had enough of the ‘lies’ about him. Had enough of the briefings against him. Had enough of the negative media stories. Had enough of the ‘relentless’ opposition of internal opponents.

In some ways it’s hard not to applaud his decision. Many people believe that Jim Molyneaux and David Trimble held on for far too long, even though all of the evidence suggested that their continuing leadership was damaging the party.

Sir Reg Empey was given no chance of hanging on when the UCUNF project failed to deliver either extra votes or seats in the 2010 General Election. Mr Elliott clearly believes that he cannot give the party the fillip it needs if it is to recover in time for the Euro, Westminster, Assembly and Council elections in 2014/15.

For a variety of reasons — some of which the rest of us may never know — he has decided to step aside and let someone else try.

He was in the post for such a short time that it’s difficult to reach any clear conclusions about his leadership. But it does need to be remembered that he probably won for two reasons: the rule changes (giving every member a vote in the leadership election) guaranteed him a starting base of almost 500 votes from his own constituency; and he was seen as the ‘Anybody But Basil’ candidate and endorsed by the party establishment.

I never had the sense that Tom ever regarded himself as a potential leader of the UUP. I don’t think it featured on his list of political ambitions and I always thought that he was quite happy to remain a spokesman (at which he was actually very good) and occasional power-broker.

But when Sir Reg stood down — and it became clear that Danny Kennedy didn’t want the job — the men in grey suits circled the wagons around Tom and anointed him successor. But the thing with Tom – and I said it at the time – is that what you see is what you get. He doesn’t ‘do’ nuance or dissemblance. He’s a straight-talking, unsubtle, generous, hugely likeable man: an almost stereotypical Ulster Unionist in blood, bone and breath.

He was clearly uncomfortable with the namby-pamby do-it-just-for-the-optics demands of leadership and never got to grips with either the soundbite or killer put-down.

It was clear, though, and pretty early on, that one PR disaster was being followed by another. I don’t need to list them now, because most of you will be familiar with such incidents as the Sinn Fein ‘scum’ remark. But in a political/media era when so much attention is focused on the leader of a party and when that party’s poll ratings and perceived influence continue to slide, it was almost inevitable that the sniping would begin as knives were sharpened.

To be honest, he didn’t really help himself when he kept most of his colleagues out of the loop when he gave the go-ahead for ‘secret’ talks with the DUP. It cost him David

McNarry’s support: ironically enough the sort of political rottweiler who could normally have been relied upon to have protected him in times of trouble.

And it also undermines his criticisms of those cabals working against him, when he seemed to have a cabal of his own negotiating privately with Peter Robinson!

Anyway, his decision to stand down is probably a wise one: for he is reasonably correct in his assessment that he cannot win over the media or an increasingly unimpressed electorate. Also — although I have no idea if this figured in his decision — a new leader of the UUP will partially spike the propaganda guns of a relaunched NI Conservative Party (expected in the next few weeks). Yet it’s still hard to avoid the conclusion that what he is really doing is handing over a poisoned chalice. The UUP remains a divided and fractious party.

There is very little evidence that anyone, not least the likely contenders for the job, has any concrete, deliverable proposals for giving the party a clearly defined and easily understood role, relevance, identity, purpose and strategy.

Indeed, I cannot think of one person who would be capable of taking the party by the scruff of the neck and imposing the discipline, determination and self-belief required to make it look like a credible alternative to the DUP.

But the party still needs a leader: and that leader — who will have to be an MLA (so forget any chatter you will hear about Jim Nicholson as a ‘safe pair of hands’) — is going to be Danny Kennedy, Basil McCrea, John McCallister or Mike Nesbitt. My gut instinct remains that it will become a showdown between Nesbitt and McCallister; yet both men come from separate sides of the party and have competing priorities and agendas, particularly on the key issue of whether the UUP should remain in the executive or immediately decamp to the opposition benches.

If the UUP is to survive as a relevant political and electoral force (and there can be no certainty that it will – even though the odds just about remain in its favour) it has to acknowledge and adhere to the keystone of survival: you cannot send mixed messages and be seen as serially incompetent.

The UUP has done very many good things down the years, but those deeds are buried in the dust of seemingly chronic indiscipline, indecision, incoherence and inconsistency. Ask most people what the party stands for — even many of those who support it — and you will be greeted with a shrug of the shoulders and a garbled reply.

Tom Elliott has actually done the UUP a huge favour. He has stood aside and left his successor enough time to repair and rebuild.

I’m not saying the job can be done, but at least there is time to give it a go. But having that unexpected time won’t make a button of difference if the members, particularly the MLAs, refuse to rally around, keep their concerns to themselves and begin to behave as though they actually belong to the same party!

In other words, stop blaming the media for your woes when your own actions are providing them with their daily copy.