A new survey has found the Ulster Unionist Party slipping behind Alliance for the first time in its history.
The poll, commissioned by former members of the UUP, will be worrying news for Mike Nesbitt as he faces his first party conference as leader this weekend.
The figures suggest the UUP is being squeezed between Alliance and the DUP. If there was an Assembly election tomorrow, the poll suggests that just 10% of voters would give the UUP their first preference — a drop of 3.2% from the 2011 Stormont election.
Alliance, on the other hand, would secure 13% of first preferences — a 5.3% rise.
There is equally bad news for Alasdair McDonnell’s SDLP. According to the poll, carried out in June and July this year, it has slipped into fifth place, its lowest ever position. Only 9% of voters would give the SDLP their number one vote if an Assembly election was held tomorrow — down 5.2% from the last Stormont election.
The other headline figures for first preference Assembly voting intentions suggest the DUP would get 34% (up 4% since last year’s election), while Sinn Fein is unchanged at 27%.
The balance went to smaller parties, who did not stand in most seats in 2011. They were TUV on 3%, Greens 2% and ‘non party’ 2%. Nobody said they would give the Tories a first preference in an Assembly election. However, in respect of a European election, they got 3%, and 1% in a General Election.
Gerry Lynch, a consultant with LucidTalk, the Belfast Telegraph’s polling partners, said: “It's a small sample so the margin of error is over 4%. The top-line figures for party support look in line with recent trends, but the methodology behind some of the later questions is extremely opaque and the samples become very small indeed in places.”
Those later questions attempt to break down opinion on Mike Nesbitt amongst smaller groups.
The net approval rating for Mr Nesbitt and other party leaders should, however, be reasonably accurate. Marked out of 10, Peter Robinson scored highest with 7.4, David Ford 7.2, Gerry Adams 5.6, Mike Nesbitt 5.2, Stephen Agnew 4.7 and Alasdair McDonnell 4.2.
The poll was commissioned by former and some current members of the UUP after a Belfast Telegraph poll published in mid-June. It showed the UUP level with Alliance on 11% of the vote, but losing ground, especially in the Greater Belfast area.
The DUP was on 31%, Sinn Fein on 28% and SDLP on 13%.
Jon Rainey, whose Political Firm operation carried out the most recent survey, was a member of the UUP until 2001. He said: “An awful lot of people in the UUP were shaken by the Belfast Telegraph poll and one of the reasons we were called in was to check its findings. Our own research bears it out.”
An Ulster Unionist spokesman said: “This is an unusually small sample, and the only poll that counts is the election — and that is some time off.”
The poll was carried out by The Political Firm, a research company based in the Republic. It is headed by former UUP member Jon Rainey, who has worked for the Progressive Democrats and Fine Gael. It was carried out in tandem with two consumer surveys. Polling, by internet panel and in focus groups, was carried out in late June and early July when 602 people were questioned in samples weighted to reflect the population make-up up at time of the 2001 Census. Such a sample would normally have a margin of error of just over 4%.