Leadership hopefuls perform high-wire act as party teeters on edge
The candidates in the most significant UUP leadership battle for 40 years go head to head tonight. It could be a make or break encounter, says Alex Kane
Mike Nesbitt and John McCallister will tonight have their first head-to-head showdown. The meeting - hosted by the Foyle Constituency Association - is open to all party members, allowing them to hear the pitches and ask questions.
It could be a make-or-break encounter, with one 'wrong' response, or hesitancy, swinging crucial votes next Saturday.
This is the most interesting leadership race the UUP has had for a very long time. Neither candidate is in the Orange Order. Neither of them has hang-ups about gays, or the GAA. Both come from the so-called 'liberal' wing. Both are good media and Assembly performers.
But this is also an interesting contest because it's about a very clear choice of direction. Indeed, it's probably the starkest choice the party has had to make since Brian Faulkner and James Chichester Clark fought to succeed Terence O'Neill as Prime Minister in April 1969.
But it isn't just a battle between two men from similar political backgrounds: it has turned into an unexpected battle royal over a very specific policy: Opposition. John McCallister says that, if he wins on Saturday, he will take the party into Opposition next Monday - April 2. He says he won't need further discussions with his MLAs, or party executive, because his mandate as leader will have come from the Ulster Unionist Council itself and the UUC remains the party's governing body.
Yet, Mike Nesbitt, while saying he supports the need for an official Opposition (he made the point in his maiden speech in June 2011), seems prepared to wait until the structures are in place.
But when will that be? Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have already ruled out a referendum on the subject and it seems unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein (and it would require a nod of approval from both) will push the idea at the Assembly's review committee. So the choice for the UUP comes down to this: stay in the Executive and hope that voters notice something positive they didn't notice between 2007 and 2011; or designate themselves the Opposition and hope they can carve out an identity and image which will attract new votes at the Euro, Westminster, Assembly and council elections due in 2014/15.
Both choices carry risks. It's quite possible that the UUP will be simply duff in the role of Opposition, incapable of landing killer blows on the Executive and failing to produce and promote policies and alternatives of their own.
Similarly, staying in the Executive - and continuing to carry joint responsibility for a Programme for Government they had little input into - means they will be tarred with the same brush come elections and unable to present themselves as something different.
Voters like choice. And that applies as much to UUP voters on Saturday as it does to the wider electorate.
Parties succeed because they are viewed to have done fairly well in government, or because they have proved themselves - in Opposition - to be a credible alternative to a poor government.
The UUP's dilemma is brutally simple: if the Executive (in which they participate) does well, then they get a very limited share of the credit in terms of propaganda and votes; and if the Executive (in which they participate) does badly, then they carry the same degree of blame and watch their votes and seats continue to spiral down.
In other words, staying in the Executive reaps little and probably no rewards.
A recent editorial in this newspaper argued that "life in the Opposition benches could be the making of the UUP. Its power to create real change at present is extremely limited, but it could become a very effective voice for those disenchanted with the way government here is run".
It's hard to disagree. While the risks of Opposition are high, they are outweighed by the risks of the UUP staying in the Executive: and the media and public (along with lobby and interest groups) would soon rally to the existence of an Opposition, forcing the DUP and Sinn Fein - kicking and screaming - to provide the structures, procedures and funding sooner rather than much later.
Opposition probably won't happen until someone forces the issue. I have described it as The Field of Dreams option: build it and they will come. John McCallister seems prepared to force the issue and is asking UUP members to give him a mandate.
Yes, it is a very daring - almost high-wire - strategy. Yet it strikes me as more sensible than the UUP remaining in situ, hoping that there may be some un-anticipated benefit in doing what they have been doing since May 2007: a strategy which resulted in yet more lost votes and seats in 2011.
The odds favour Nesbitt, yet McCallister may spring a surprise. Mind you, whoever wins faces a mountain: and the likelihood that there will be more people trying to pull him down than push him up.