Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Turf war looms as Tories take on UUP

There is no doubt that David Cameron is determined the Conservative Party should gain a foothold in Northern Ireland.

In spite of the electoral disaster of the previous pact with the Ulster Unionists in the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force (UCUNF) forged in 2008, he has again offered a local merger between Tories and the UUP, a move which has been rebuffed. Now, as Lord Feldman of Elstree, the co-chairman of the Conservatives, outlines in this newspaper today, the Tories are determined to go it alone in the province.

This newspaper has advocated a normalisation of politics here away from the traditional sectarian headcount and welcomes any attempts at pluralism to give voters the widest possible choice at elections. Yet there is an obvious difficulty for the Tories before they have even organised strongly here. By promoting themselves, first and foremost, as a pro-union party - which should be an unsaid given - they will undoubtedly divorce themselves for a sizeable minority of the population.

That begs the question of where the new party hopes to draw its support from. The obvious answer is the diminishing UUP electorate. The DUP is currently riding on the crest of a wave and its supporters are very unlikely to defect. Even those hardline unionists who still rankle at being in government with Sinn Fein see little common ground with the Conservatives. Instead the Tories will be competing for the traditional UUP vote.

UUP leader Tom Elliott was probably correct to reject any merger proposal. With the continued recession and squeeze on public spending, the government is likely to become more unpopular and that would be an electoral millstone around the neck of any party harnessing itself to Tory policies. Yet the weakened UUP still remains vulnerable and it must show more innovation if it is to fight off this new challenger. Certainly Mr Elliott has more to fear than any other political leader from a revived Conservative Party here.

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