Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Tom Elliott wins UUP race... but now his problems really begin

South Tyrone MLA Tom Elliott

Newly crowned UUP leader Tom Elliott only has a matter of months to prove the doubters wrong and show he is the man to steer it towards electoral revival.

As he celebrates last night's decisive 69% to 31% win over rival Basil McCrea, Mr Elliott could also be reflecting today that his problems are just starting.

He was understandingly in buoyant mood after the vote, declaring: “As leader I will develop the Ulster Unionist Party once again as a leading force in Northern Ireland politics.”

The Assembly election is as close as next May, and the UUP can certainly not afford any further decline.

Given the scale of the challenge facing his party, Mr Elliott could be forgiven for wondering what possessed him to seek its top spot.

It has shed over 100,000 votes in the last decade. That is a staggering statistic.

The tanks rolled in from the west to crush McCrea, but can their commander win the war?

When David Trimble was elected leader in 1995 in a blaze of media attention, he saw off four fellow MPs for the job.

Now the party does not have any MPs at all and Mr Elliott's victory will be little more than a news-in-brief item outside the province.

The UUP is struggling badly to find a coherent message to set it apart from its unionist rivals.

It now has to try once again to re-build support, just as looming public spending cutbacks threaten to diminish the popularity of all politicians yet further.

Added to this, the new UUP leader has his own image problems to counter. Some of his supporters have been annoyed at depictions of the leadership election as a contest between a grey, conservative west of the Bann Orangeman in Elliott, and an urbane, modernising liberal reformer in McCrea.

But Mr Elliott has seemed intent on living up to his stereotype — if that is what it is.

His “big idea” seems to be to push for a Stormont rule change that would prevent Sinn Fein taking the First Minister post if it becomes the largest party.

That strategy is not only uninspiring, it also looks doomed to failure.

One of the low points of Mr Elliot's campaign came when he said he would not be attending GAA matches or Gay Pride events.

A damaging and unnecessary controversy followed — entirely of his own making.

The confidence of his campaign team ahead of last night’s vote was thanks in no small part to his Fermanagh base being the strongest power bloc in the party.

His association is said to have between a quarter and a third of all the party members.

As the Elliott camp coaches headed down the M1 yesterday towards the Waterfront Hall poll, it was tempting to think of them as tanks rolling in from the west to crush the McCrea insurgency.

But party member numbers and votes at election time are very different things.

Fermanagh and South Tyrone Ulster Unionists have a very big voice in the party's ranks, but they can only boast one of their own constituency's six MLAs.

If Mr Elliott is to have a chance of success as leader, he and the party will have to significantly boost their appeal well beyond his base and comfort zone.

But it is by no means all doom and gloom.

The UUP will fight next May's Assembly poll from a low starting point, given its poor performance in 2007. The party still has a core support that is very unlikely to forsake it for the DUP.

With some strong new candidates and improved vote management, it has a chance of picking up some seats.

Even a small step forward could boost grassroots morale.

The DUP will be without some if its biggest vote-pulling names, who have chosen Westminster over Stormont.

Mr Elliott's supporters maintain he will shake things up much more than people think.

He pledged last night: “I will bring forward a range of measures during the coming weeks to ensure the party is in a positive position to deliver policies and arrangements for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland.”

The new leader will have decisions to make on his party's Ministerial posts and other Assembly roles — as well as how best to utilise Basil McCrea and reach out to his supporters.

The UUP could certainly do with sharpening its act up at Stormont and elsewhere.

But that involves the problem area of media performance.

Even Mr Elliott's most devoted admirers cannot fail to have noticed how much he can struggle with a microphone in front of him.

There is an argument for saying this does not matter as much as some sections of the media imagine.

Nick Clegg was the supposed star of the TV leaders' debates in the General Election, but the expected surge in Liberal Democrat MP numbers never materialised.

However, any political party will surely be in trouble when poor media performances are combined with confused or blurred messages.

That is the chief problem facing the Ulster Unionists.

What exactly does it stand for?

DUP leader Peter Robinson stated last week that the policy differences between his party and the UUP are now “largely synthetic”.

He has a point.

The Ulster Unionists can argue — with some justification — that the DUP jettisoned its traditional Paisleyite principles to steal their ground.

But crying foul about your opponent's winning tactics gets you nowhere.

So where do they go now?

The UCUNF link-up with the Conservative Party failed.

Heading down the unionist unity path of ever closer co-operation with the DUP looks like a self-defeating cul-de-sac that will deprive voters of choice.

Pulling out of the Stormont Executive to form an opposition would leave it open to charges of running away from difficult decisions at a time of swingeing cuts.

Yet Northern Ireland desperately needs an alternative vision, and a new direction.

Sectarianism and so-called peace walls are blighting communities and putting off investors and tourists.

Duplicating public services and facilities because of community divisions will look increasingly insane as resources are slashed.

Fresh ideas are urgently required on crucial issues like growing the economy, dealing with the past and re-shaping the education system.

Someone somewhere has to start asking if what we now have in Northern Ireland is the best we can do -— in politics, schooling, shared living, the economy and many other areas of life.

Tom Elliott has given little indication to date that he is ready for this task. He has time to prove the detractors wrong — but not that much time.

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