Nesbitt has delivered for the UUP and deserves serious respect

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The job of a columnist and commentator is to call it as he sees it. But what happens if you’re seeing it wrong, or if you’ve been missing something along the way?

When Mike Nesbitt became UUP leader on March 31, 2012 I was fairly dismissive. I was pretty sure he’d only got the job because the party wasn’t ready for any more risks after Trimble and then Sir Reg Empey’s UCUNF project: and weren’t ready for the risks and likely squabbles of John McCallister’s “let’s go into opposition right now” strategy.

I thought they chose him because he was the easy option. He was well known and one half of a high-profile celebrity couple. He didn’t bring any political baggage with him and didn’t have internal enemies. He was promising stability, gentle rebuilding and “making this party feel good about itself again”.

My view at the time was that he wasn’t a natural political animal and didn’t understand what it was that made Ulster unionism tick. His first few media appearances as leader were appalling.

When he started his mantra about recovery needing “two electoral cycles” I just assumed that he was buying himself time and preparing his excuses. At that early stage he had four goals: the re-election of Jim Nicholson as MEP, extra representation at council level, a return of the UUP to the House of Commons and winning upwards of 10 seats at the 2016 Assembly election. Yada Yada was my response.

Yet here’s the reality. In terms of his strategy of a few steps forward at each election he has delivered. Ok, the Nicholson result was hardly resounding, but he held on to the seat. The council results didn’t add up to much in terms of building votes, but the UUP did pretty well when you drill down into the results and brought in some young talent as well.

Last Thursday the party gained two MPs and upped the overall vote to 114,935 –the highest it has been for a very long time. So when Mike Nesbitt told me on Friday morning that he was still aiming for a significant increase in the number of MLAs I took him seriously. He has ticked off three of his four goals so far.

Success is often dependent on perception. For a number of years people didn’t believe that the UUP could win anything, so they didn’t vote for the party. If Nesbitt has now provided enough evidence that a vote for the UUP can deliver seats then it is certainly more likely that people will be tempted to return to the fold. More important, though, he has managed to unite the party and keep squabbles and rebels away from the front pages.

He has been helped by the fact that David McNarry, John McCallister and Basil McCrea are no longer there to give him headaches, as well as the fact that there is no internal cabal briefing against him and preparing for his overthrow. As Margaret Thatcher noted, “there’s nothing like a win to silence your opponents and rally your friends and grassroots”.

I’m not suggesting that all is now plain sailing for him. He still has to set out the distinct role, relevance, purpose and direction of the UUP and why it is worth voting for. He has to bear in mind that Fermanagh/South Tyrone will require another ‘electoral pact’ in 2020 and that the DUP will want something in return. And he also has to address the very poor performance of the party in South Belfast and his own Strangford constituency and some under performance in other constituencies: as well as calculating and responding to the inroads both Ukip and TUV seem to have made into a potential UUP base on Thursday.

But Nesbitt has something today that he didn’t have last Wednesday. He and the UUP are now being taken seriously again. Taken seriously by the media and taken seriously by his political opponents. And taken seriously because it is now impossible to ignore the fact that he has delivered.

In the early hours of Friday morning I saw smiles on the faces of UUP members and canvassers who haven’t had reason to smile for years. Nesbitt has put a spring in their step. For the first time in 15 years they now feel that a comeback is possible.

It will be interesting to see how the DUP deal with him. When all is said and done they had a pretty good election: yet they lost a seat (and didn’t win East Belfast as comfortably as they would have liked) while the UUP gained two. That hasn’t happened for half a generation.

The DUP understand elections and they will know that success breeds success. They will understand the potential impact upon them if the UUP get the message across that they are back in business, particularly if the media and the electorate believe the message, too. It also creates problems for the TUV and Ukip who, up until three days ago, viewed UUP Assembly seats as ripe for the picking.

Nesbitt and the UUP still have a lot to do before the Assembly election, but it seems to me as though they are up for the battle. The party he took over in March 2012 was demoralised and fed up. Today it has a confidence I haven’t seen for years and a belief in itself that has been missing since about 2001. That’s a remarkable turnaround. It’s a turnaround that’s entirely down to Nesbitt. And yep, I’m halfway through a supersized humble pie – and not enjoying it!