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What Mike Nesbitt must tell the Ulster Unionist conference tomorrow

Leader should spell out coherent alternative to Programme for Government and pledge end to pacts with DUP, says Alex Kane

Published 21/10/2016

Mike Nesbitt must point the way forward for the UUP as he addresses his party’s conference
Mike Nesbitt must point the way forward for the UUP as he addresses his party’s conference

Tomorrow's Ulster Unionist Party conference is Mike Nesbitt's fifth as leader. He replaced Tom Elliott in March 2012, 10 months after the UUP's worst ever election result, when it returned just 16 MLAs, saw its vote drop by almost 2% to 87,531 (below the SDLP's 94,286) and found itself eclipsed by Alliance in Belfast.

While Elliott was popular with the grassroots, there was a growing feeling the party needed a fresh face and someone who was better at dealing with the media.

It was also clear that they wanted someone who would steady the ship, avoid any bold moves, sort out internal discipline and provide a coherent, voter-attractive message.

That task fell to Nesbitt, when he clobbered John McCallister by a whopping majority of 536 to 129. In his acceptance speech, he dampened down any expectations of a speedy overtaking of the DUP and spoke of needing to play the long game and focus, instead, on a steady momentum built around two electoral cycles - taking the party through to the late spring of 2021.

That first cycle ended with the Assembly election in May. And, having placed so much emphasis on it in March 2012, Nesbitt cannot avoid analysing electoral progress so far.

The 2014 Euro election saw the UUP drop from 17.1% in 2009, to 13.1%. However, they did manage to add 455 votes to their 2009 tally.

The local council elections on the same day - based on new boundaries - saw a modest increase of 742 votes on their 2011 tally. All told, not a particularly good day for the UUP, but certainly enough for Nesbitt to claim modest progress, which he cited as optimism for the next phase of the electoral cycle.

The next election was the 2015 General Election. On the back of a pact with the DUP, the UUP saw its vote rise from 102,361 in 2010, to 114,935. More important, though, it won back Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Antrim - its first MPs since 2005.

The underlying figures and the DUP's own very impressive performance tended to be drowned out by the UUP's euphoria. For the first time in more than a decade it looked as though the party was on the way back.

And Nesbitt's own body language and approach to interviews (where he had a reputation for tetchiness) also changed. He had delivered for the party. He had reversed their run of electoral misfortune. He was preparing them for further success in the 2016 Assembly election - the last one of the first cycle.

But then it all went wrong. The party returned just 16 MLAs, recorded its worst ever electoral performance (down to 12.6% and a fall of 229 votes to 87,302) and was reduced to just one seat in Belfast. It was a disaster - made all the worse because nobody in the UUP saw it coming.

Sitting in the BBC during live coverage of the count, I was bombarded with texts from UUP candidates and members asking me a variation of, "How bad can this get, Alex"? Actually, they got lucky, because at one point it looked like they might go down to 14 or 15 seats.

What Nesbitt must do tomorrow is explain what went wrong. If we exclude the 2015 pact - which tended to skew the real figures - the UUP's electoral high-point under his leadership was the 101,385 votes in the 2014 local council election.

Yet, just two years later, the party lost 14,000 votes. Instead of improving on the previous worst ever performance of 2011, the party had actually done somewhat worse.

Nesbitt will say that the DUP played the 'Vote Arlene to stop Martin' card - and he's right. That's precisely what they did do. It was the same card they played in 2011, yet even though the UUP, TUV and Ukip pointed out the "ongoing cosiness" of the DUP-Sinn Fein relationship, the DUP still managed to build their vote in 2016.

Which tends to suggest that the electorate didn't take seriously Nesbitt's claim that the UUP would do a better job of dealing with Sinn Fein and Martin McGuinness. Nor, it seems, was the unionist electorate impressed by the UUP's decision to leave the Executive in August 2015, saying that it was "impossible to do business" with Sinn Fein. Again, Nesbitt will need to give the conference a frank assessment of whether or not that withdrawal was a tactical error.

All the way through the election campaign, it left open the question of whether Nesbitt thought he would be able to do business with them after the election. And that must have made some unionists - on both sides of the argument - wonder if it was worth voting UUP.

Having explained how the UUP ended the first election cycle in more or less the same position it was in back in 2011, Nesbitt then needs to give them the confidence to carry on towards the end of the second cycle.

That's going to be difficult. There won't be a Euro election, which means a loss of financial support. The new boundary proposals will, almost certainly, cost them the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat and possibly South Antrim too (unless Theresa May opts for an early election).

The reduction of MLAs from 108 to 90 (possibly 85) is likely to see a drop from 16, which, along with a loss of an MP, will also mean a further loss of financial support. Which leaves the next council elections - due in 2019 - as their best bet for something resembling recovery.

In his speech, Nesbitt must tell the conference what the UUP needs to do to remain electorally and politically relevant. The party has chosen Opposition - the right choice, in my opinion - and the party must make Opposition work. That means more, much more, than complaining about the DUP-Sinn Fein carve-up, because that strategy didn't deliver in 2011 or 2016.

It means a careful, costed, thought-through deconstruction of the Programme for Government and a careful, costed, thought-through alternative to it.

It means an end to pacts with the DUP. It means unnerving and wrong-footing the Executive. It means looking like, with the SDLP, a government-in-waiting.

Nesbitt has a difficult task tomorrow: but not a hopeless one. The party hasn't given up on him and there are no leadership challengers. He still has something to prove - to himself and to the members who backed him in March 2011.

But one thing is certain: he has a tougher audience now than he had five years ago, let alone in the aftermath of last year's General Election.

Belfast Telegraph

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