Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 20 November 2014

Amputation of rebels can't cure sickly party

United front: Nesbitt and Robinson joke with unionist unity candidate Nigel Lutton
United front: Nesbitt and Robinson joke with unionist unity candidate Nigel Lutton

United front: Nesbitt and Robinson joke with unionist unity candidate Nigel Lutton, and (below) McCallister and McCrea Martin McKeown

Mike Nesbitt has a spring to his step these days. He has moved quickly from expressions of regret at the resignation of Basil McCrea and John McCallister to speaking of a feeling of liberation.

"So, goodbye and good riddance?" Mark Carruthers asked him after he expressed satisfaction at the departures. "Goodbye," Mr Nesbitt replied, smiling.

He managed to fluster Karen Patterson in another post-resignation interview and he performed well on Spotlight Special on Wednesday evening. He was suave, urbane and self-assured, by comparison with Arlene Foster, the other unionist on the show.

So, has the amputation of two MLAs cured the UUP, the sick man of Ulster politics? Or is this a period of remission before the fatal infection of disunity takes hold again?

Ms Patterson spoke of growing discontent within the party, and she was right. He successfully needled her to show evidence, which she couldn't, because UUP MLAs who speak to journalists are still insisting on anonymity.

"The wheels are coming off the cart, so I don't want to say anything," one told me, but the chances are that he won't stay in the shadows forever.

Nesbitt speaks of "shrinking to grow". That can work if you are pruning back to a firm group of committed people with a clear vision.

Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, had a strategy of "better fewer but better" as he strove for purity and unity.

The UUP isn't that disciplined. On the contrary, it is like an onion where successive layers are peeled away until nothing is left.

It has lost right-wingers and traditionalists, like David McNarry and Lord Maginnis, as well as liberals, like Mr McCrea and Mr McCallister.

This is more a haemorrhage of support than a purposeful purge of malcontents, or prudent pruning back of deadwood.

Losing members is seldom good for a political party and for it ever to work, there has to be a clear vision behind it.

That seems to be lacking in the UUP; Nesbitt needs to articulate one quickly, while the defectors are still getting their act together.

So far, the world will be inclined to take him at their estimation. He is moving closer to the DUP and has made it clear he does not rule out other joint unionist candidates after Nigel Lutton in Mid Ulster.

How can he? This is a seat that cannot be won by unionists, so the argument against pulling out of other contests and preserving the UUP's independence will be harder to make. By his own admission, Nesbitt did not know that the DUP had used parliamentary privilege to accuse Francie Molloy, the Sinn Fein candidate, of being a suspect in the murder of Mr Lutton's father – a charge which Mr Molloy strenuously denies.

That seems suspiciously like grasping at unionist unity in desperation, without so much as checking the Press cuttings.

So, is Nesbitt's improved performance in recent days a genuine bounce-back, or just a "dead cat bounce", before the ageing and infirm party gives up the ghost?

Things don't look good, but Nesbitt still has an opportunity to shape events.

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