Belfast Telegraph

Who in their right mind would want to lead the UUP?

The forthcoming leadership election gives the Ulster Unionist Party one last chance to get it right, says Alex Kane

Jim Molyneaux lasted for 16 years, David Trimble for 10, Reg Empey for five, and Tom Elliott for just 18 months. That fact alone tells you something about the present state of the UUP: namely, the fewer votes it gets, the shorter the period of office for the leader.

It also raises a question: why would anyone in their right mind want to lead the UUP?

Tom Elliott's resignation statement referred to "relentless" internal opposition from some party members, including lying to the media and briefing against him. That's nothing new for the UUP.

It certainly happened to both Reg Empey and David Trimble and it will happen to whoever succeeds Tom Elliott.

And it happens because the UUP remains a collection of cabals and factions. Indeed, some MLAs have accused Elliott of entrusting his own cabal to negotiate with the DUP, while the rest of the Assembly group and most of the party officers were none the wiser.

The factions remain much as they were in 2010, when Elliott defeated Basil McCrea. Some want closer co-operation with the DUP; some want the party to push closer to David Cameron, fearful that a relaunch of the Northern Ireland Conservatives (due in the next few weeks) will cost them even more votes; some want the party to abandon the Executive and designate itself as the official Opposition; some want the party to stay in the Executive, arguing that a non-unionist would take their seat; and some don't really care what policy is adopted - they just want the leadership to stick with it. All of these factions are represented in the Assembly group and in the party's executive committee: and they will still be there irrespective of who the nominal leader may be at the end of the month.

There will be the temptation to avoid another divisive leadership contest by opting for a supposedly safe pair of hands - like Jim Nicholson MEP, for instance.

But both Elliott and Empey won because they were the safe pair of hands at the time; and the last time the party opted for the non-establishment candidate was in 1995, when they chose Trimble.

Who will stand this time? The reality, bearing in mind that the leader has to be an MLA, is that there are only four serious candidates: Danny Kennedy, Basil McCrea, John McCallister and Mike Nesbitt.

Yet my instinct is that, rather than all four standing, they will reach their own arrangements and it will end up as a contest between Nesbitt and McCallister.

McCrea didn't have a good experience last time around and I think the general impression remains that he would not be able to unite the warring factions.

Kennedy enjoys being a minister and I really don't think (and he was close to both Empey and Elliott) that he wants the unenviable task of leadership.

Which leaves us with Nesbitt and McCallister. Nesbitt has only been in the party a short time and has been an MLA for less than a year. But he has a high media profile and is a good media performer. But is that enough?

Molyneaux was pretty poor with the media, yet still kept the UUP far ahead of the DUP. Empey was regarded as a very competent media performer, yet didn't prevent the UUP's downward electoral decline. Basil McCrea enjoyed the same profile and performance ratings as Nesbitt, yet was swept aside by Elliott.

Nesbitt is also regarded as close to both Elliott and Kennedy and would expect votes from that wing of the party which supports them.

McCallister is also a very good media performer and is popular across the party's grassroots and liked by the media. But he belongs to that wing which was supportive of the Conservative link and which has very grave concerns about any deal or arrangements with the DUP.

Both men will perform well at hustings and constituency meetings, but what's the real difference between them? Well, I think it will all come down to the issue of staying in the Executive for the time being (Nesbitt/Kennedy) or heading straight onto the Opposition benches (McCallister/McCrea).

Recent polling evidence from Queen's University Belfast suggests that almost 80% of the electorate believes that the UUP has little or no influence over Executive policy, so McCallister has a strong case to make in favour of leaving the Executive and allowing the UUP to carve out its own identity. But Nesbitt will counter with the argument that, since there is, at the moment, no provision for Opposition, the UUP actually risks further isolation.

Whoever wins will still face huge hurdles: beginning with the need to face down internal opponents and ensure that the party sticks to one message and a consistent policy. One thing is certain, though: this really is the last chance for the UUP to get it right.

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