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Nesbitt falling short in his role as UUP leader

The Ulster Unionist Party is a gift for a media bored and frustrated by a lack of stories from the spin doctor-controlled Executive. Better still, it's the sort of gift which keeps on giving; for just when you think that they couldn't find any new ways to keep us amused, they prove us all wrong.

I sometimes think it would make more sense if the party abandoned politics altogether and franchised itself as a reality TV show: for that, at least, would be a guaranteed ratings-winner.

No car crash, banana skin, elephant trap, or bull-in-a-china-shop moment would be avoided, or sidestepped. And the party comes complete with its own former TV anchorman.

During the leadership campaign, Mike Nesbitt said: "If there is a big idea, it is ourselves; that we are the masters of our own destiny. When we offer better policies, better communicated, and a better organisation, better resourced, we can hit the ground and work hard to reconnect with the tens of thousands of pro-Union voters, who feel they currently do not have a party to support, or to represent them. If we can hold our core vote and attract the disaffected, we are back in business."

The problem is that there is no sign of the better policies, better organisation, or the better communications.

Indeed, an opinion poll in the Belfast Telegraph last week put the UUP - at 11% - on its lowest-ever level of support.

One bad news story has followed another and, last Friday, the party's officers actually over-ruled Nesbitt's public call for an executive meeting to discuss the Maginnis debacle, then made matters worse by issuing a statement which didn't even come close to criticising the peer.

It was an embarrassing and humiliating setback for Nesbitt. Ironically (albeit very typical of the UUP), he didn't have the power to call the meeting, he didn't have the approval from those who did have the power and, consequently, he should not have contacted the media to tell them he was calling the meeting.

In essence, he was breaching the very rules he has criticised others of breaching. Hmm: only the UUP.

But is it fair to lay all of the blame at Nesbitt's doorstep? Tom Elliott, Reg Empey, David Trimble, Harry West, James Chichester-Clark, Brian Faulkner and Terence O'Neill all faced internal indiscipline and open rebellion.

James Molyneaux played all sides off against each other (privately persuading the various devolutionist and integrationist wings that he supported one over the other), but the consequence of that strategy was a period of inertia between 1979 and 1995.

The UUP doesn't want leaders who make decisions. All they want them to do is some gentle management and plodding along.

They want the leader to be like the slightly deaf, slightly doddery old uncle who sits at the head of the table during family gatherings: mostly smiling, generally bewildered and occasionally breaking wind.

But they don't want him coming up with ideas: for, in the minds of the UUP's grassroots, ideas are almost always followed by new troubles and new divisions of one sort or another.

Nesbitt was chosen not because of his ideas (most of which passed over the heads of his supporters), but because he was reckoned to be the man to turn around the negative media perception of the party and land some hefty blows on the DUP.

I suggested during the campaign that he was "neither a natural street-fighter nor a natural political animal": so it doesn't surprise me his leadership has been plagued with mistakes and is now crowded with criticism .

Can he recover? Can the UUP recover? He has made a big play about the need for personal loyalty and internal discipline. Loyalty, of course, is a two-way street and requires the leader to be viewed as a success.

It's pretty hard to impose discipline when you choose to do it in the public domain and when your own authority has been weakened by 'Events, dear boy, events'.

So far - and, yes, maybe it's still too early to make the call - Nesbitt has not shown that he possesses the leadership skills required to inspire the UUP membership, or convince a wider audience that his party should be taken seriously again. But recovery also requires the membership of the UUP to buy into the concept of a collective responsibility for their success.

Nesbitt may be the wrong choice: but he is their wrong choice. The least they can do is to act in a way which will reduce the scale of the problems he (and they and the UUP) now face.

But I'm not sure the will is still there, because he represented the last roll of the dice. He has asked to be judged when he reaches his first 100 days: a brave request when you remember that Napoleon's '100 Days' dictum ended at Waterloo.