The Ulster Unionist Party has been thrown into turmoil after its only MP rejected the party’s new allegiance with the Conservatives by declaring she would not stand under its banner at the General Election.
Lady Sylvia Hermon confirmed suspicions that she was deeply unhappy with Sir Reg Empey’s decision to throw his hat in with the Tories to create the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force by admitting she was disappointed with the deal that was done last year.
Sir Reg has responded by expressing his annoyance that Lady Sylvia is questioning party policy in the middle of an election campaign.
Today the Belfast Telegraph can reveal many of the reasons why the North Down MP felt she could not support her party’s alliance with the Tories.
This paper understands Lady Hermon feels she was excluded from all discussions about the possibility of a link up between the parties, despite being their only Westminster politician.
She was left to discover the dramatic changes in a shop where she spotted the newspaper headlines.
Since then she has been hauled in for meetings with Tory heavy-hitters including Ken Clarke, as well as for talks with David Cameron, flanked by the party’s Northern Ireland spokesman Owen Paterson, and Andrew MacKay, a former shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who is now one of the leader’s advisers.
It is understood that a feeling the Conservatives have little understanding of Ulster politics, compounded by discussions with one senior Tory who repeatedly referred to “Irish MPs” and Mr Cameron’s decision to wear a green tie to a unionist event, has not lessened over time.
Lady Hermon is also known for her regular support for the Labour government in Commons votes.
She said: “At the present time, I can’t see myself standing under a Conservative banner,” adding that she was elected as an Ulster Unionist.
“If my party chooses to move to call themselves by a different name, I’m terribly sorry and terribly disappointed by that but I remain an Ulster Unionist.
“That was certainly my mandate and I’ve loved serving the people of North Down.
“They have stood by me through the most difficult of times and if they choose and wish me to serve them I would do my very best to do that.”
The changes to the party came at a time of personal tragedy for Lady Hermon who was caring for her husband Jack, the former chief constable of the RUC, as he battled Alzheimer’s disease. She was left devastated when he died last November.
The Conservatives declined to comment last night as the decision was “not official”. The move has, however, been widely anticipated for some time and party sources insist they are “relaxed” about it.
But Sir Reg Empey said: “The leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party is disappointed that Lady Hermon, in the middle of an election campaign, has chosen to give a series of interviews in which she has challenged party policy and the collective decisions taken by her colleagues.
“Throughout last year and into 2009, we held many discussions at party executive level, held roadshows for our members on numerous occasions and ultimately put proposals for a Memorandum of Understanding to our executive for approval.
“This very democratic process resulted in two separate meetings of our executive where the relevant decisions were taken on unanimous recommendations from our party officers. At these well-attended meetings not a single vote was cast against the proposals.
“At both of these meetings, our North Down constituency was fully represented by all its delegates who unanimously voted in favour of the proposals,” he said.