Sam McBride: Edwin Poots has won three times in a month – but he’s losing a bigger battle
The speed of the DUP’s descent into civil war after toppling Arlene Foster is breathtaking and its implications stretch far beyond the current battlefield.
It is just 32 days since Mrs Foster dismissed threats to her position, rejecting the significance of this newspaper’s report on internal disquiet with the words: “We’ll just deal with it and move on because I’ve bigger things to do”.
Edwin Poots, a key leader in the plot to remove her, has now had three successive victories – removing Mrs Foster, defeating Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in the vote of MPs and MLAs, and then seeing off a late attempt to block his ratification as leader on Thursday night. That record shows that he is no political simpleton. He has outwitted the DUP establishment on three occasions within a month.
To his supporters, that shows a man of action; the person who realised that Mrs Foster’s leadership was disastrous and intervened.
But while Mr Poots has been clinically effective within the DUP in seizing power, there is growing evidence of him struggling to make those gains where it matters far more – with voters.
Mr Poots has done a series of interviews since taking over. None of them have involved calamitous statements, but each has been fundamentally defensive.
There is scant evidence of him using that valuable publicity to explain how the DUP will now be a different party from the one which has been shedding support.
The party did not even email to journalists his carefully-worded acceptance speech on Thursday night and almost comically, Mr Poots emerged from the hotel on Thursday night to declare: “The DUP is not a divided party”.
Even outside the pressure of an interview, the new leader is missing opportunities. Yesterday he agreed to write a platform article for the News Letter. Readers can judge the result for themselves on the following page but it involves no substantive message beyond his generalised statements thus far. A leader cannot afford to waste opportunities to communicate with voters – especially when so many voters have a negative impression of him.
The firmest part of Mr Poots’s article today is his statement that it would be a mistake to collapse Stormont, reinforcing what he has said over recent weeks. But while that shows he is not the wilful wrecker some of his opponents caricature him to be, Mr Poots could easily stumble into wrecking devolution.
While the DUP’s rivals would have been yelping in delight as they saw the party devour itself on Thursday night, some of them may be vulnerable if the DUP implodes and takes Stormont with it. A weak Mr Poots will be constantly vulnerable. Mrs Foster has left myriad dilemmas – from the Irish Sea border to the pledge to back an Irish language act.
Recent weeks reveal that beneath the veneer of the DUP as a happy family, senior members of the DUP do not trust other senior members of the DUP with real power.
Despite Mr Poots being someone who has been a Stormont minister for more than a decade, and other senior figures urging voters to endorse him in elections, some now fear the party contracting back to its base and abandoning where much of unionism now is. One top DUP figure last night told me that “society is changing” and many unionists do not want to see the recreation of the old DUP of the 1980s and 1990s. He asked rhetorically: “Does an Edwin Poots-Ian Paisley Jr leadership appeal to those people?”
Mr Poots backers say this is just those who had power smarting at its loss.
What voters have seen of the DUP’s dysfunctionality and divisions cannot be unseen. It would be remarkable if the party was to increase its support in next year’s election.
There is the possibility of the same spectacle in the UUP over coming weeks. New leader Doug Beattie has a plan to make the party more liberal, something which could lead to dissent from that party’s more traditional members.
With unionism needing to win seats next year if it is to vote down the Irish Sea border in 2024 and facing pressure for a border poll, it could hardly be in a more calamitous position.
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