Can Mike Nesbitt mend the widening cracks in the UUP?
The political fallout from losing Basil McCrea could be immense for the Ulster Unionists, but on the other hand, can they afford to keep him? Liam Clarke assesses the embattled leader’s dilemma.
Could Mike Nesbitt enter the history books as the last leader of the Ulster Unionist Party? Only 10 months ago, more than four out of every five delegates backed him as leader. They have to stick with him. Dumping him so soon would almost certainly see the party splinter and crumble, and who would want to replace him?
Basil McCrea couldn’t unite it either; it is hard to think of anyone who could.
So it may splinter and crumble whatever happens, but as it declines Mr McCrea knows he is in a strong position to set out terms.
When we spoke on Monday there were three things that were necessary to reconcile him with the party and keep him within its ranks.
Firstly, the whip, which was removed by Mike Nesbitt last year, must be restored. Secondly, he expects to be exonerated at the disciplinary tribunal on Friday where he faces charges of lack of loyalty and unacceptable behaviour for attacking the party’s stance on flying the Union flag 365 days a year on Belfast City Hall.
Lastly, he has said that he will not stay in the party if it embarks on a policy of enhanced unionist co-operation.
If Mr Nesbitt and the party give in on these points then Mr McCrea has won, and others would probably leave and the DUP would gain. The bluff of the party’s three Belfast councillors, who gave Mr Nesbitt an ultimatum that they would resign if Mr McCrea was not punished for criticising them, would be called.
Mr McCrea would become the conscience of the party, calling the shots as he saw fit. Mr Nesbitt, who has been developing a reputation as a hatchet man after expelling David McNarry and allowing Lord Maginnis to resign, would be emasculated.
On the other hand, the disciplinary complaints were badly thought out and are unlikely to survive a legal challenge. Mr McCrea has produced a party submission on flag flying which spells out the very policy of designated days opposed by the councillors.
He was also on strong grounds when he criticised Mr Nesbitt for not defending the Good Friday Agreement, the central achievement of the modern UUP, against DUP attacks. He voted against the UUP whip, but what can anyone do about that when the whip had been removed?
The political fallout of losing him would also be immense in the shrinking and weakened UUP. As recently as the 2003 Assembly elections his Lagan Valley seat was its best result with 46% of the vote and three seats. That was before Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP and MLA, defected to the DUP, which now has 53% of the vote.
The UUP was building up again under Mr McCrea. In 2011 it scored 20%, but 16% of it went to Mr McCrea and his second runner has now left the party. If it loses him he could hold the seat. The constituency association recently sent a delegation to Mr Nesbitt asking that their MLA be kept within the party.
He even has the makings of a new political grouping.
David McClarty, another former UUP MLA who improved his vote after the UUP deselected him in East Londonderry, is interested in co-operating with him. John McCallister from South Down would likely follow him out of the party.
Most of all, he has a distinct and coherent agenda. If he is forced out, he will leave on a point of principle.
He said “either you are for a shared future which means communicating with people and respecting people who are not from your own community to build a shared future with them, or you are for an approach that seeks to shore up the unionist bloc”.
“A shared future” is a clarion cry which opens up the possibility of co-operation with other centrist forces including the Tories, Alliance and Lady Sylvia Hermon, the former UUP MP now sitting as an independent in North Down.