Why Mike Nesbitt's 'car crash' strategy could cost him UUP leadership
Ulster Unionist's pledge to give the SDLP his second-preference vote is sort of distraction that costs elections, writes Alex Kane
Mike Nesbitt has done something truly extraordinary for a unionist leader. Bolt-from-the-blue extraordinary. He has said that his first transfer - having voted for the UUP candidate in East Belfast (where he supported a pact in 2015 to stop Alliance) - will be to the SDLP candidate and not to the DUP, Conservative, TUV, or PUP pro-Union candidates.
The leader of the party which was responsible for the creation of Northern Ireland a century ago will give his second preference to a party which favours Irish unity and whose leader has recently advocated joint authority.
Brian Faulkner (who led the Sunningdale Executive with the SDLP in 1974) never said he would do that. David Trimble (who served with Seamus Mallon as his Deputy First Minister) never said he would do that. I can't think of a single senior figure within unionism who has suggested doing it. And that's why it is so extraordinary.
On the surface, of course, there is logic to it. If the UUP/SDLP pitch is that Mike and Colum would make a better job than Arlene and Michelle, then the electoral mathematics dictate that UUP/SDLP voters (along with previous non-voters and former voters from other parties) vote for each other and then transfer to each other earlier and in large enough numbers to maximise the joint impact.
But for that to work, it also required that Nesbitt and Eastwood, their party officers and their candidates had cut the deal in advance. Yet judging from Eastwood's reaction and the lukewarm response from key figures in both parties (not to mention what looked like a hefty slap down from Danny Kennedy and other UUP candidates), it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Nesbitt was - as he is prone to doing - making it up on the hoof.
The other problem with the strategy - although that's too grand a name for it, I think - is that the UUP/SDLP are only running 45 candidates between them, meaning that they're not even capable of commanding a majority in a new Executive.
But, barring a miracle, there is absolutely no chance of the UUP/SDLP adding 17 seats to their present tally and every likelihood that both of them will lose seats.
What Nesbitt has done is muddy the waters. A substantial chunk of UUP voters will not be giving early transfers to any nationalist party (let's face it, they're not even comfortable with the agnosticism of Alliance), let alone transferring to any of them at all. Some DUP votes, uncomfortable with RHI and DUP incompetence, will not, now, opt for the UUP. Some DUP/TUV/PUP voters will be reluctant to transfer to the UUP.
And, as it becomes clear that there isn't unanimity within UUP ranks about what Nesbitt meant, or how it will play out with candidates and party members, there is the additional problem of a "mixed message" dogging the last two weeks of the election campaign.
The DUP will be loving this. Arlene, they can say, may have made mistakes about RHI (which she has admitted to and now supports a full investigation), but she would never - ever - say that she would vote for a nationalist before another unionist. That's likely to be a very powerful message on the doorsteps, particularly in those key areas where UUP MLAs just about made it over the electoral threshold last May. It will make life very difficult for Philip Smith - Nesbitt's running-mate in Strangford - and Michael Henderson, hoping to win back the South Belfast seat lost last May.
The other thing Nesbitt has done is force potential and existing voters to examine the differences - some of them awkward and embarrassing - between the UUP and SDLP, something which wouldn't have been quite so important had he avoided a solo run on his, "I'll vote SDLP before DUP" stance.
I accept his line that the UUP/SDLP - and he and Eastwood - could probably work better together than the DUP/Sinn Fein; but it's a big step from that to hinting at a vote UUP/SDLP, or SDLP/UUP, strategy. Both parties needed warmed up on the issue.
Candidates needed to be in agreement. Canvassers needed to know what to say when they hit the doorsteps yesterday. Instead, Nesbitt has been on the back foot since Sunday lunchtime.
Speaking at the SDLP's manifesto launch last Monday, Colum Eastwood said: "I have faced a lot of criticism, because I have shown that myself and Mike Nesbitt can, despite our differences, work together. I want to make it clear that no amount of criticism will change that commitment. I will stick by it and I stand by it. We will co-operate, compromise and, if given the opportunity, we will share power. The SDLP and UUP will work together to make Northern Ireland work."
Not a single word about, not even a hint of "vote SDLP and then UUP" - just a solid, unambiguous promise to work together if the outcome permitted it. If voters wanted to vote for both parties and transfer earlier to each other, then so be it. That would be up to them.
Nesbitt should have endorsed that approach, rather than ratchet it up. Every UUP and SDLP candidate is going to be asked about it. The DUP and Sinn Fein will have a field day with it. Instead of a public commitment to work with each other in either government or opposition - which made sense as a joint election strategy - both leaders and their candidates are going to be grilled on voting options.
That's the sort of distraction that helps your opponents. It's the sort of distraction that loses existing votes and costs potential new ones. "Would you vote for a party whose leader is trying to out-green Sinn Fein and who carried the coffin of a terrorist?" "Would you vote for a party whose leader sat in a Unionist Forum with loyalist terrorists and whose party is inextricably linked to the Orange Order?" Those are questions that UUP/SDLP voters now face.
This was bold stuff from Nesbitt, but it was badly handled. There is, of course, merit in it. And perhaps, if the election hadn't come upon them so unexpectedly, they could have worked it out in more detail and sold it with greater conviction and clarity. Instead, it became the stuff of car crash politics, the sort of interview that leaves the Press office with a thumping headache, unsettles candidates, rattles political allies and confuses voters.
And, unless he can turn it around in the next few days, it could cost Nesbitt the leadership if the party underperforms on March 2.
Power-sharing was the first Rubicon for unionists and nationalists. Power-sharing between unionists and Sinn Fein was the second Rubicon. Voting unionist, and then transferring immediately to a nationalist party, is the third Rubicon.
It looks like not enough unionists are prepared to cross it at this point (nor nationalists, for that matter).
So, Nesbitt's job now is to make sure he keeps the party's head above the water if he insists on staying in the river.