On Saturday morning, Doug Beattie was on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph because an opinion poll indicated he was Northern Ireland’s most popular political leader. On Tuesday morning, he was on the Nolan Show fighting for his leadership.
That’s because a trail of tweets — from around a decade ago — seemed to paint him in an entirely different light from the liberal, moderate, progressive unionist who has boosted the UUP in the polls and attracted a tranche of new candidates (quite a few of whom are women) to fight the coming election.
In his interview with Nolan, Beattie referenced those who might now be saying of him, “I didn’t think that was the sort of person you were, Doug.”
And that’s going to be his biggest problem right now, because people — existing and potential voters — will be asking themselves, ‘Which is the real Doug Beattie: the man from those racist, misogynist, offensive tweets a decade ago, or the man who has been trying to shift the UUP from some of its more traditional and conservative beliefs?’
The conclusion they reach matters. It matters because it will make the difference between more votes and seats on May 5 (confirmation that the UUP really is back in business); or losing votes and seats (and having to find a new leader and begin the whole process of reinvention and comeback — again). That’s assuming of course, he will definitely be leading the party into the election—even after yesterday’s decision by his party officers.
I knew yesterday that the key players in the UUP would be sitting down and assessing the landscape. I spoke to one of them on Saturday morning: “I feel really good,” he said, “Doug may even get us the bounce we need to overtake the DUP.” He phoned me after the Nolan Show: “Just when you think the gods are on your side, you find yourselves knee deep in this tweeting s***.”
The party had five crucial decisions to make. It knows a popular leader makes a difference to a party’s electoral fortunes (look at the Alliance ‘surge’ under Naomi Long). But it had other things to consider, too. How much damage has there been to Beattie? How much damage would the party take at the polls? What is the likely impact on existing and potential voters? Is the situation recoverable?
Crucially, would a replacement leader have enough time to build a profile, shore up the 14% support indicated in the LucidTalk poll and see off renewed pressure from both the DUP (which will be very pleased by Beattie’s predicament) and Alliance (which will make a bespoke pitch to liberals who had toyed with the idea of voting UUP)?
On Saturday morning, it looked as though Beattie would bring in voters, even if there weren’t enough to topple the DUP. That ‘bounce’ can no longer be taken for granted. Indeed, keeping him as leader could actually cost the party votes and seats.
A decade ago, he was in a different career with a different culture. But circumstances change. People change.
Events and new realities can steer their thinking. Must we always judge them by their past? The decision by the party’s officers and MLAs to endorse his leadership yesterday afternoon was not a big surprise; although it remains a big gamble.
They can’t be certain the electorate will, in turn, endorse their decision to back him. And nor can they be certain there aren’t more, much more difficult-to-deal-with tweets in the pipeline.
But his party has backed him — for now — and he must prove his contrition is genuine and that the Doug Beattie people thought they knew as leader of the UUP is the real Doug Beattie.