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So where do Tom and the UUP go from here?


UUP leader Tom Elliot

UUP leader Tom Elliot

UUP leader Tom Elliot

There is no concealing the fact that the recent rupture with the Tories has done deep damage to the Ulster Unionists. It has robbed the party of its latest big idea and ended a three-year courtship of the Conservatives in public acrimony.

Tom Elliott, the party leader, put a brave face on it yesterday, hinting that useful contacts still existed with the Tory leadership. However, the article by the Conservative Party's co-chairman, Lord Feldman, in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph, shows that the Tories have run out of patience with the Ulster Unionists and are moving on without them.

An opportunity for co-operation between them arose with the election of David Cameron as Tory leader in late 2005.

He was the most openly unionist Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher, who also fell out with the UUP. One of his central missions was the preservation of the union with Scotland as well as Northern Ireland.

Negotiations bore fruit with the creation of the Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force (UCUNF) electoral alliance in 2008. In a recent letter to Lord Feldman Mr Elliott recalled that when Mr Cameron addressed the UUP conference that year he spoke of his "great respect for the Ulster Unionist Party" and "the unbreakable bond that binds us together."

Even then there were signs of tension.

The UCUNF name was an unwieldy compromise born of the UUP determination to have the word Ulster in the title. Similar differences occurred in the general election when the Tories wanted to contest every seat but the UUP argued for unionist unity candidates where a nationalist might win.

This led to an exodus of the pro-union Catholics who had joined the Tories at the time. UCUNF won no seats at Westminster.

Mr Elliott discussed the way forward with Lord Feldman at the Tory conference in October, putting forward a number of options including shared membership.

The Tories' impatience became clear in a letter from Lord Feldman where he proposed that the UUP dissolve and merge with the Tories.

This week the Conservatives have been transformed from an ally, which the UUP had spent years courting and promoting, into an electoral rival.

The UUP has considerable assets and could, on paper, recover. It has representatives on all the councils, a minister in Stormont and a considerable party structure. It also has many politicians of undoubted ability who the Tories and other parties will now do their best to poach.

What the party clearly lacks is a unique selling point and direction. It was founded 107 years ago to secure the union. That mission has now been largely achieved by the dropping of the Republic's constitional claim to Northern Ireland and the winding up of the Provisional IRA.

For those still worried about it, the DUP takes the lead at Stormont as a counter weight to Sinn Fein.

The new role of local centre right party with a voice in the heart of government, through the Tories, has now also evaporated but fortunately there are some years before the next election.

The UUP needs to use that time to define a clear purpose and strategic direction. It can't afford another false start.