DUP leader is insulating himself from the risk of devolution not returning after May’s election
A key element of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s campaign to be DUP leader – indeed, one of the few areas in which he differed from his rival, Edwin Poots – was that he would return to Stormont and become first minister.
After winning the leadership at the second attempt last June, Sir Jeffrey reiterated that commitment. But something has changed, and the DUP leader now looks increasingly reluctant to give up the Palace of Westminster for the humbler surroundings of Parliament Buildings.
Just after winning the leadership, Sir Jeffrey said he hoped to be back in the Assembly “by the end of the year” and he told UTV: "I'd like to get back into Stormont as quickly as possible but I'm not a member of the Assembly so obviously I've got to find a way of getting back into the Assembly."
Despite not immediately asking a colleague to step down so he could be co-opted into the Assembly, the new DUP leader appeared to firmly commit to taking up a vacant seat.
Last August, just a few weeks after taking over as DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey told Good Morning Ulster: “I intend to stand in the Assembly elections if I am unable to return to the Assembly before that.”
With Arlene Foster planning to quit the Assembly, he did not rule out taking her seat as MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone.
But when Mrs Foster resigned in October, Sir Jeffrey did not take her seat. When the DUP leadership decided it did not want to run veteran Jim Wells in South Down, some of those close to Sir Jeffrey saw it as a perfect opportunity for him to move to the constituency of his birth.
But Sir Jeffrey again chose not to do so. Instead, Mr Poots, his Lagan Valley colleague, said Sir Jeffrey encouraged him to seek the South Down nomination (something the DUP leader denies), only for Sir Jeffrey – at least, according to one of his supporters, Sammy Wilson - to vote against him in the selection process which rejected Mr Poots (Sir Jeffrey declines to say how he voted).
The sudden death of South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford last month meant than an unforeseen vacancy arose in South Belfast. But when that was filled last week it involved the transfer of Mr Poots – a surprising move because Mr Poots is a farmer who has impressed many farmers as agriculture minister, yet he is now in one of Northern Ireland’s least agricultural constituencies.
However, this at least meant there was a clear opening for Sir Jeffrey in Lagan Valley, his home constituency. Yet he has now chosen as DUP nominating officer to co-opt a councillor, Paul Rankin, as a temporary MLA – even though Sir Jeffrey says he will be standing in a few weeks’ time asking voters to put him into the seat, and Mr Rankin will not.
Aside from Sir Jeffrey’s reputation for caution and indecision, there are two factors which in this regard have changed since he became DUP leader and might explain his reticence.
In January, the DUP pulled down the Executive and it is far from clear as to whether it will return after May’s election. Sir Jeffrey appears reluctant to give up the guaranteed job of Lagan Valley MP - replete with a bigger salary, more expenses, and all manner of other benefits – for the far more precarious job of Lagan Valley MLA.
But another factor which has shifted may be even more significant. The government attempted to change the law to allow MPs such as Sir Jeffrey to re-enter Stormont while remaining as MPs. After a wave of opposition to a proposal which appeared designed for Sir Jeffrey’s benefit, the plan was abandoned.
In searching for a logical explanation for what has gone on here, it is increasingly hard to avoid the conclusion that the Lagan Valley MP has been hoping to adopt Boris Johnson’s cakeist approach – return to Stormont but retain his seat in Westminster, at least temporarily, hedging against the possibility of devolution’s collapse.
Three times that he has been forced to choose between returning to Stormont and staying in Westminster, he has chosen the latter.
Perhaps most significant in all of this is the rumour which has been circulating in the DUP for weeks that Sir Jeffrey may not return to Stormont at all – even if he stands for the Assembly, and even if he wins a seat.
Several weeks ago, the DUP leader was repeatedly pressed by Stephen Nolan on whether he would rule out standing for the Assembly and then immediately resigning his Assembly seat to co-opt in a colleague. Repeatedly, Sir Jeffrey declined to do so.
In his statement announcing that Mr Rankin was taking the vacant Lagan Valley seat, Sir Jeffrey did not address why he was not taking the seat himself. However, he said that he would be “leading from the front” in the election campaign.
Like the best generals, the best political leaders know when to take risks and when to be cautious. Collapsing the Executive was a major risk, but increasingly Sir Jeffrey appears to be insulating himself personally from the consequences of that risk.