Basil McCrea is holding off on announcing his intention to run for the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party — replacing Sir Reg Empey — for another few weeks, it has emerged.
Sir Reg signalled the start of the contest yesterday by confirming he will resign on September 22, when a new party chief will be appointed.
The battle for the succession has been viewed as two-horse race, with Lagan Valley MLA McCrea representing ‘progressives’ in the party and Tom Elliott drawing support from traditionalists.
Yet Fermanagh/South Tyrone MLA Mr Elliott is widely regarded as the favourite — an assessment accepted even in the McCrea camp.
But the entry of a third candidate — predicted by former UUP head of communications Alex Kane — could complicate the voting.
The party is still recovering from its poor performance in the May General Election, after losing its only MP following Lady Hermon’s decision to resign, and Sir Reg being defeated by the DUP’s William McCrea in South Antrim.
With local constituency associations already preparing for next May’s Assembly election, the party has decided it will not field joint candidates with the Conservatives, as it did in the General Election and last year’s European elections.
Fewer than 2,500 fully paid up party members will vote to decide who takes over the reins from Sir Reg at a special general meeting of the party’s ruling council on Wednesday, September 22 — two days earlier than first anticipated.
Mr McCrea had been thought likely to confirm his candidacy when Sir Reg clarified his plans to stand down, but it is now likely that he will wait until after Tuesday, August 24.
The party’s education spokesman is about to travel to the United States, where he is taking part in a trade mission to Milwaukee, and said he has a number of other commitments.
Mr McCrea said yesterday he was making no immediate comment after UUP chairman David Campbell opened up the hustings and announced nominations will close at 5pm on August 31.
In a statement, Mr Campbell said: “Sir Reg Empey shall continue to carry out the functions of party leader until his successor is deemed elected.”
After five years as leader — following Lord Trimble — Sir Reg was also praised by the party chairman: “His period of leadership has produced the reform of our structures which eluded his predecessors and he has restored financial stability to our organisation and moved the UUP and Northern Ireland closer to mainstream British political life.
“As the party’s chief negotiator during the all-party talks, he negotiated the settlement that has led to the peace and stable devolved Government that is enjoyed today.”