If Arlene Foster doesn't survive RHI, who would replace her as DUP leader?
Heating scandal probe is seriously damaging DUP's image but, says Alex Kane, it's by no means clear who would take over from the former First Minister - and if they would have a rock-solid strategy
It's never good for a political party when, both inside and outside the support base, people are asking: "Do you think the leader will survive?" It has been an extraordinarily difficult 20 months for Arlene Foster; some of which is her own doing (mishandling the original response to the RHI story in December 2016, followed by an election in which, under her watch, unionists lost their overall majority in a local Assembly/Parliament for the first time), and some of which has flowed from the very public showdown between key Spads and officials at the RHI Inquiry (raising very important questions about where the real power in the DUP lies).
The overall impression is of a DUP that seems, at the highest levels, to be almost clinically dysfunctional. A party that used to mock the "around-the-clock Charlie Chaplin civil war mentality" of the UUP is now making it look like a role model of internal discipline, integrity and efficiency. And that's a particularly embarrassing fact for a DUP leader who defected from the UUP in January 2004, citing as one of her reasons for going that there was no sense of internal control or family spirit in her old party.
There isn't, at this point, a full-blown revolt against Foster. That said, there are levels of concern and discontent which haven't been apparent since the party became aware that its own grassroots - along with broader unionism - were very uncomfortable with the 'Chuckle Brothers' relationship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in late 2007/early 2008. Within months Paisley - regarded by a majority of party officers and MLAs as a potential electoral liability - had been toppled and replaced by Peter Robinson. Foster may not have reached that point, but the very fact that some of her party colleagues are having off-the-record conversations with the media is a clear signal that she should be concerned.
The main thing she has in her favour (apart from the fact that there is no serious electoral threat to the DUP from the UUP/TUV) is that no one seems prepared to plunge the dagger, although she will also be aware that there isn't exactly a queue of people stepping up to the microphones and cameras to defend her.
Robinson was the only obvious successor to Paisley. Nigel Dodds and Foster were the clear joint package to replace Robinson and struck their own deal. But it's not so clear who would succeed her.
The DUP doesn't want a leadership contest. Coronations are easier to manage, as well as avoiding the policy squabbles which can make a formal contest bitter and messy.
Yet a coronation requires a unifying figure. In the continuing absence of an Assembly and with another general election a possibility (that picture becomes clearer after this week's Conservative conference), Dodds could probably step into the breach.
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He is popular across the party and, just as important, is liked within broader unionism. But if he doesn't want the leadership - and he turned it down in favour of Foster - then it's hard to know who the choice would be. Jeffrey Donaldson, Edwin Poots, Simon Hamilton and Gregory Campbell all have their supporters, but the wider grassroots may not be overly keen on 'another' former UUP member taking over the reins.
Sammy Wilson gets mentioned, as does Ian Paisley, but I wouldn't rate their chances. After that, the party isn't exactly spoiled for choice in terms of high-profile contenders. But, in the event of an open contest, I wouldn't rule out a dark horse challenge.
The primary internal calculation boils down to this: how much damage is the final report of the RHI Inquiry likely to inflict on Foster?
Neither she nor the party will want a situation in which she is left with no choice other than resignation.
But with Jonathan Bell no longer an MLA, and all the other key figures unelected Spads, that only leaves Foster to carry the can if a political sacrifice is required in the aftermath of the report.
Equally, leaving her in situ as potentially damaged goods for months on end raises all sorts of other problems, not least of which is whether she can return as First Minister (assuming, of course, a deal is even possible anytime soon) with the prospect of a possibly hugely damaging report hanging over her head a few months down the line.
These are matters which key figures within the party will be considering. They have no choice.
The inquiry has been devastating for the public/political image of the party; damage has already been done and more damage will be done.
Foster's personal authority and negotiating hand have been seriously weakened and if she chooses to stay on then she, and the leadership team, need a rock-solid strategy and series of option papers to cover every eventuality.
If she is replaced - either in a coup or voluntarily - then the party still needs the strategy and option papers.
The most pressing problems are these: how do you deal with a small group of special advisers who seem to have exercised enormous control across and within the party? How do you end the present political impasse, and what compromises are you prepared to offer to reboot the Assembly? How do you ensure that the same problems are not now, nor will be repeated in other departments? How do you restore confidence in your former reputation for good governance? How do you restore confidence in the DUP? How do you regain the sort of moral high-ground which allows you to land political blows on Sinn Fein? What do you do if the present deal with the Conservatives crashes? And how do you prepare unionism for the political/electoral/challenges which will accompany a hard, difficult Brexit deal?
There is, of course, a wider dimension to all of this. When the lead party of unionism is under a relentless, ruthless, unflattering spotlight, it does have a knock-on impact on the unionist brand. Foster does not and should not bear sole responsibility for what is unfolding at RHI. But as leader, she does bear sole responsibility for what happens next. She must make the personal call about whether she can undo the damage.
Anyone thinking about removing and replacing her - either brutally or with a soft-landing resignation option - must also decide if they have the support and the strategy to address and resolve the greatest challenge the DUP has faced since it was founded exactly 47 years ago.
Whatever happens in terms of leadership, it will remain an extraordinarily difficult time for the party.