Alex Kane: Why Opposition versus Executive is the least of Steve Aiken's problems
Ulster Unionist grassroots want the lowest-risk option right now: a minister and the profile and kudos that brings
Just when you think it can't get any worse for the UUP, it does.
Another leader and another series of problems: Steve Aiken backing down on a promise to stand in every constituency on December 12; then he's run into third place by Alliance in East Antrim; Alliance outpolling the party in almost every other constituency; and now what looks like a dispute between Aiken and Doug Beattie (also outpolled by Alliance in Upper Bann) over whether the party should take ministerial office (assuming, of course, the Executive is rebooted), or return to the role of official Opposition it took in 2016, when Mike Nesbitt was leader.
There was actually a very strong argument to be made for Opposition in 2016, not least the fact that John McCallister's Private Member's Bill had, for the first time, created the role, with terms and conditions, for an official Opposition.
Also, the relationship between the SDLP and UUP was very close at that point, too; and with both parties choosing Opposition, it raised the possibility of them working together and presenting themselves as a serious electoral alternative to what had been described as the "DUP/Sinn Fein axis of self-interest". But the collapse of the Assembly just a few months later ensured the "Opposition experiment" was never properly tested.
At this point - and a lot could change over the next few days - it looks like the SDLP and Alliance would join an Executive, leaving just the UUP as the official Opposition.
That's a huge task for a party with only 10 MLAs, because nine of them would have to shadow a department, each one of which has a whopping portfolio of responsibilities. It would put enormous stress on both the Press and research wings of the Assembly party.
It's also worth bearing in mind that the Assembly party is hardly awash with hands-on experience: seven of the 10 have only been MLAs since 2015/16/17 (meaning they've only experienced a few months of a functioning Assembly) and none of the other three has held ministerial office (although two are former leaders).
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That said, Opposition, particularly if done well, does offer a profile for the party which it mightn't otherwise have. Every day, either in the Assembly, or the media, would be an opportunity for the party to land blows and score electoral brownie points.
But - and there's always a but - Opposition done badly could do catastrophic damage to the party's reputation (which is already pretty shaky at the moment), leading to further electoral hits. It's easier to hide a poor minister in an Executive than it is to hide an Opposition which isn't firing on all cylinders.
The other problem for the UUP is relevance.
The evidence from the General Election and last summer's council and Euro elections suggests that the greatest electoral threat to the party is from Alliance. Indeed, if the "surge" continued, it could see the UUP reduced from 10 to just six or seven MLAs (making the Opposition/Executive question a purely academic one) if there were an election in the next few weeks.
So, assuming there isn't an election and an Executive is rebooted, does the UUP gain more relevance from a ministerial position, or Opposition? A very good minister could make a big difference. A very good Opposition could make a big difference. But both carry huge risks and no guarantees.
My own sense - and I have talked to UUP members I've known for decades - is that the grassroots want the least risky option right now. Which is a minister and the profile and kudos that brings.
There is a feeling that the Assembly group lacks the sort of really big hitters who could make Opposition work: or, as one member put it to me: "I can't imagine any of them who would actually make a minister quake in their boots during an Opposition cross-examination."
There is another factor in play, too. For all of their personal views about the DUP (and there is a lot of bitterness), most UUP members I know want the two parties to align themselves on the same policy page as much as possible.
It's partly because they recognise that the UUP rarely emerges well from any spat with the DUP, but also because they further recognise that narrowing demographics, the growth of Alliance and "endgame politics" generally in the run-up to Northern Ireland's centenary in 2021 means that unionism - all of it - has to find ways of working much closer together.
The Executive versus Opposition difference will, I suspect, be settled fairly amicably, if only because the party cannot handle another acrimonious internal squabble. But I think Aiken will come under enormous pressure to move closer to the DUP, rather than further away from it.
Indeed, I think it's likely that we'll see a pushing-together movement, involving the DUP, UUP, PUP, TUV and fringe elements of unionism and loyalism. It doesn't necessarily mean a full-blown merger, but it does mean that people are strategising in the background to ensure a unionist party (presumably the DUP) remains the largest party in the Assembly and, therefore, entitled to the psychologically important role of First Minister.
Part of this strategising also involves calculating how, in the event that the Assembly collapses altogether (not impossible, by the way), unionism works collectively to best effect in the next few years.
All of which means the UUP will have to face the probable fact that the chances of ever eclipsing the DUP are, at best, remote; meaning that Aiken (if he accepts the challenge, of course) must now find a way of creating a role for the UUP within a broader unionist ambit.
Aiken's dream debut as leader would have been a significant increase in the UUP vote, seeing off the challenge from Alliance, returning at least one MP and the General Election producing renewed opportunities for Remain.
Instead of the dream, he got the nightmare.
So, against the background of Brexit happening, Alliance on his tail, increasing numbers of unionists favouring intra-unionist co-operation, the DUP remaining - by a considerable majority - the unionist party of choice and most of nationalism seemingly focused on unity sooner rather than later, he has to work out where to place the UUP while avoiding yet another mini-civil war. That's a huge task.