Three-way tussle expected for Tom Elliott's job
The make-or-break battle to secure the future of the UUP is now on in earnest.
The leadership contest is shaping up as a three-horse race with Mike Nesbitt expected to launch his campaign tomorrow — and Basil McCrea backing off in favour of current Assembly group deputy leader John McCallister.
Newcomer Nesbitt, only elected to the Assembly last May, is set to confirm he is running after talks on a ‘dream ticket’ deal with Danny Kennedy failed to produce an immediate agreement.
Former deputy Assembly group leader Kennedy is due to make his initial bid to succeed Tom Elliott today and is being widely viewed as the favourite.
Each candidate will have to set out his stall, in the next two weeks, on how the party can hope to restore its fortunes and win back supporters who have sat out the last two Assembly and the Westminster and council elections. They are aware it could prove the final chance to save the party from terminal decline.
Even before he finally declares, Nesbitt has won the backing of one key contingent of the party — eight of the 11 members of the executive of the party’s youth wing.
In a statement yesterday, they said: “It is our opinion that Mike Nesbitt is the best candidate... capable of properly articulating the Ulster Unionist vision.”
After taking out nomination papers, on which he has to obtain 35 signatures, Mr Nesbitt said: “I am very encouraged by the support I have received, not only the amount of it but also the sources it is coming from.”
It is not thought Strangford MLA Nesbitt nor Mr Kennedy, the Regional Development minister, are in favour of quitting the Executive for Opposition.
Speaking from Canada yesterday, Mr McCrea — defeated by Mr Elliott in the last contest 18 months ago — said he fully supported the party going into immediate opposition after Mr McCallister is elected. Mr McCrea said he was not convinced Mr McAllister could gain more support than he did against Mr Elliott — 294 votes against 643 — but he fully concurred with the South Down MLA’s core message.
“We need to create clear blue water between us and the other political parties and need to be offering something different to reconnect with voters who have drifted away from us,” he added.
“This we can do by going into immediate opposition.”
Hopefuls: Danny Kennedy, John McCallister and Mike Nesbitt
Who can lead the UUP back into the front line of politics?
The UUP is faced with a choice in the current leadership battle, which, although it may be clear, is not easy or pleasant.
Any of the three paths on offer may lead to the loss of members and decline. This is a battle for the party’s soul.
Bill White of LucidTalk polling analysed the party’s performance and prospects for the Belfast Telegraph.
A former party member himself, he sums up their problems by saying: “The UUP’s vote is spread across the province and it is declining rapidly, particularly in the east.”
In many constituencies the party is picking up the last seat. It is vulnerable to a shift in voting intentions or to a reduction to Assembly seats.
This loosening grip has left the party, which ran Northern Ireland for most of its history and was held together by power, casting around for solutions.
In its heyday the UUP was the party of the Union. Later it became, with the SDLP, a party of the peace process.
Since then it has struggled to define a new role for itself and support has drifted away.
It has flirted with the Tories, the DUP, and the SDLP and before that the PUP as it sought allies to halt its decline. At each stage it has lost members.
The three likely candidates for the leadership present three distinct visions for its future
The strong favourite to win is Danny Kennedy, the minster for Regional Development.
He is a “steady as she goes” figure who would build better relations with the DUP and already attends their ministerial group. Mr Kennedy has performed well in government and gets on well with people.
Besides that he commands powerful blocks of support.
A majority of his Assembly colleagues back him and are likely to come out in his favour.
He is a member of the Orange Order, another influential group likely to support him but has also shown a liberal face, for instance attending the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr.
He has the support of the unionist peers. Lord Maginnis is likely to swing most of Tyrone, possibly Fermanagh too, behind the Kennedy bandwagon.
The logic of building bridges to the DUP is obvious. Pooled unionist votes could save UUP seats at the next election. Anyway, Peter Robinson argued, that the DUP’s move to the centre ground makes the difference between the two parties a matter more of style than substance.
“I predict Danny will win by 120 to 130 votes and he will have my support,” says David McNarry, who resigned the Assembly whip after being disciplined for making the DUP talks public.
Under a Kennedy leadership such contacts would continue and would be more open and transparent; the difference between the two parties might blur as the wagons of unionist unity circled. It is widely believed that if elected he will retain the ministry. Party sources turned down offers by MLA Mike Nesbitt to form a “dream ticket”.
That would have meant Mr Nesbitt, a former journalist and broadcaster, being a leader who built up the party organisation while Mr Kennedy held the ministry and led the team in the assembly.
Last night Mr Nesbitt declined to comment on the claims.
He is expected to declare his candidacy on Thursday.
“As I see it” he said, “the party is like a business and the profit is power gained at election time.”
He has a pragmatic approach to many issues other candidates consider matters of principle.
He would examine co-operation with the DUP closer to election time and would also look at the idea of going into opposition on a cost benefit analysis.
“There are a number of tests to be met before you could do that,” he said.
His immediate priority would be to build up better relations within the party and revamp the organisation.
“One problem is that we don’t know each other well enough” he said.
This is a pragmatic, managerial style and it is backed by younger members. He would represent a break with the past and a listening leadership.
The most daring choice of all is South Down MLA John McCallister, who makes no bones about leading the party into opposition, hopefully to rebuild its strength. He represents radical change and the chance of a new beginning.
These are real choices for the UUP and, as the party’s support declines, the stakes have never been higher.
Man who aims to |be leader of the opposition
By Liam Clarke
Yesterday John McCallister was quietly pleased when Caral Ní Chuilin, the culture minister, addressed him at Stormont as “the leader of the opposition”.
“If I win the leadership I think that title could quickly catch on. It has a ring to it,” the South Down MLA said.
Just turned 40, Mr McCallister is the youngest person to stand for the leadership of the UUP and has undoubtedly the most radical agenda.
An advocate of gay rights who has upheld the unionist position at a Sinn Fein conference on Irish unity, he proposes taking the party out of government.
It is a bold move because there is no provision for a formal opposition at Stormont — there would be no money for special advisors and perhaps less access to civil service resources.
Mr McCallister thinks such arguments miss the point.
“We need to create a clear identity or else you may as well put up a sign saying ‘vote for the DUP’.”
He also dismisses the argument that it is better to take whatever ministries you can.
“It is not that we are frightened to take on the reins of office,” he argues.
“It is just that we can’t prosper as a party by staying in government as such a junior partner.
“We are getting the blame for all of the bad things and the credit for none of the good ones.
“I think it is a natural evolution of democratic politics that you should have an opposition party at Stormont at this stage. That is my bottom line.”
He believes “that is a very simple message to give to people — we are going to provide opposition and scrutiny for the government until you give us enough votes to form one ourselves”.