The Ulster Unionists’ electoral tie-up with the Tories takes a blow in today’s Belfast Telegraph poll.
Of those who identified themselves as supporters of the Ulster Conservative and Unionists New Force (UCUNF) project, only just over half plumped for David Cameron as Prime Minister.
And very nearly a third of those adopting the UCUNF label would rather have Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg over the Conservative boss.
Questioned over the week since the second national televised debate between Cameron, Clegg and Gordon Brown, just 53 % of UCUNF voters opted for their prospective joint leader Cameron.
And the question facing the UUP from the result is whether UUP voters are likely to support Tory policies, while rejecting or having strong doubts about the man widely tipped as the most likely next Prime Minister.
While it is a fairly broad church, with an element reflecting the more traditional Labour support base, perhaps best exemplified in former Upper Bann MP Harold McCusker, a significant majority of the UUP support base could have been expected to come out for Cameron.
Instead, allowing for the 3% margin of error applying to all opinion polls, it is only around a half.
Sir Reg Empey and the UUP leadership have calculated their experiment with Conservatives to field joint candidates in 17 of the 18 Northern Ireland contests — the exception being Fermanagh & South Tyrone, where agreed independent unionist Rodney Connor is to take the Tory whip unless it conflicts with the interests of the constituency — would enjoy growing backing among those who usually vote UUP.
In fact, today’s results show that almost a third of UCUNF backers (32%) opt for Clegg and a further 12% for Labour leader Gordon Brown, with just 3% opting for “none of them”.
The results are the latest in a series of setbacks for the two-party link-up.
The move has seen the loss of the Ulster Unionists’ only outgoing MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, and her North Down colleague and Assembly member Alan McFarland.
The two-party association also played havoc with election procedures in some areas, with two parallel processes in place, particularly in South Antrim where Sir Reg finally agreed to becoming candidate after former Antrim mayor Adrian Watson was dropped.