When a party has internal troubles it usually has to do with policies, rivalries and election results.
Elected representatives, in what they thought were reasonably secure seats (with the assorted perks and salaries that go with them), begin to get spooked when it looks as though those seats are a little less secure. And when they get spooked they tend to become restless and start briefing against the leader and “that inner circle of advisors, who don’t know what it is to stand for election and knock doors”.
For the DUP, that restlessness really began last year when the TUV, UUP, Ukip, PUP, Orange Order and some victims’ groups made common cause against the Maze – eventually forcing Robinson to do a very public U-turn.
Newspaper reports at the time (none of which were denied) suggested that key DUP figures had had “stand up rows” with Robinson on the issue. One very senior DUP member, in an off-the-record briefing in early September 2013, said that “Peter has come to his senses and backed away from a showdown which would have done him real damage”.
The restlessness bubbled along for the next few months, with people at all levels of the party talking to journalists and pundits in a way they had never talked to them before.
The results of the council and Euro elections in May added to the restlessness and sense of being spooked. Sinn Fein got more votes in both than the DUP. The UUP, TUV, Ukip and PUP all did better than expected. More important, though, the DUP lost its right to be able to speak on behalf of a majority of those unionists who had voted.
Back in 2000 I predicted the ‘electoral time-bomb’ facing the UUP. I did it by adding up their total votes in each election cycle and noting the downward trend. The DUP figures tell a similar story.
In the Assembly/Euro/general/local government cycle between 2003-2005 their total vote was 803,365; in the 2007-2011 cycle it was 643,719 (down 159,646); in the latest cycle – which ends with next May’s general election –it’s sitting on 474,527 and needs 180,000 votes (10,000 more than it got in the last general election) to top the 643,719 tally. At the moment the DUP is running about 95,000 behind its 2005 high point of 241,856.
I’m not claiming that this is an exact science: I’m merely pointing out that the DUP has clearly passed its peak in electoral terms. The one big thing it has in its favour is that there isn’t, as yet, a rival unionist party strong enough or organised enough to do to it what the DUP did to the UUP between 1998 and 2005.
But there is the potential for Sinn Fein to top the next Assembly poll. As I noted earlier they topped the poll at the council elections (for the first time); they topped the polls at the Euro elections (for the second time) and they topped the poll in the 2010 general election (for the first time).
So it’s no surprise that the DUP is spooked and restless. Nothing matters more than results and cold, hard figures.
A leader doesn’t have to be loved – he just has to deliver success. Yet the most extraordinary development over the past couple of weeks has been Robinson’s admissions of failure. He says that the structures are not fit for purpose (even though he has been claiming for the past few years that he negotiated and delivered a much better deal than the UUP/SDLP delivered).
He has admitted that there are internal critics, or ‘lemmings’, trying to knock the DUP off course (having spent the last 18 months denying that there was a cabal working against him). He has orchestrated pledges of loyalty from his MPs and MLAs, even though he used to mock David Trimble for doing exactly the same thing. For the fourth time in a year the DUP has been forced to address rumours about his leadership.
And yet we now know the sell-by date. He will lead the party into the next two elections – so he says. But what happens if there is an early Assembly election, before the 2015 general election: will he go in 2015 rather than 2016? What happens if the general election indicates further decline and East Belfast isn’t won back? What happens if the restlessness and rumblings of discontent continue over the next year? What happens if there is an early Assembly election and the DUP lose seats and votes, or Martin McGuinness emerges as First Minister? Here’s the blunt reality: Robinson is in exactly the same position as David Trimble was in between November 2003 and June 2005. The leadership issue is not settled and the questions around it are not going to go away.
Robinson is in a bind. He can’t move in the Executive without approval from Sinn Fein. He is going to need a deal with the UUP/TUV/Ukip/PUP if there’s to be any chance of winning back East Belfast in 2015 and a further deal if he is to prevent the sort of vote shredding that would benefit Sinn Fein at an Assembly election.
His judgment – look at the Maze, Pastor McConnell, lemmings and Ryder Cup decisions – is not what it was. He is no longer master of what he surveys; no longer the majority voice of unionism; no longer in unchallenged control of his party.
I suggested, in the early part of 2013, that Robinson should consider an exit strategy: “it probably won’t get any better for him and, as he approaches 65 (which he has already mentioned as a stepping down date), his potential successors will start to weigh up their options and line up their allies.”
That’s precisely where we are right now.
I also argued – wrongly, as it turns out – that Robinson wouldn’t want to go the way Molyneaux, Trimble or Paisley went.
But he’s still there, still clinging on, still believing that he can turn it all around again and give a final, triumphant two fingers to the ‘media windbags’ he despises so much.
But Peter has just arrived at the ‘thran’ stage of his leadership: allowing petulance and pride to keep him in office. I wonder what advice he would have offered Trimble at this point?
Oh, that’s right – he told him to go and go quickly!