It was the UUP’s year of euphoria. It began on December 6, 2008, when David Cameron addressed a thousand-strong audience at their annual conference and was rewarded with a massive, lengthy and very loud ovation. A few months later, in June 2009, Jim Nicholson (standing as the UCUNF guinea pig)—although polling fewer votes and thanks to Jim Allister’s intervention—pipped the DUP’s Diana Dodds to become the first unionist returned in the Euro election. On October 24, William Hague addressed the UUP’s conference and, like Cameron, received a rapturous reception. It looked like the UUP was on the way back!
It was during that year (and I can’t now remember the exact date) that a mutual contact set up a meeting between myself and Mike Nesbitt at the Cultra Inn. He hadn’t been in his job as a Victims’ Commissioner for all that long, but made it clear that he was interested in a political career and he was also fairly relaxed when I said that I wasn’t sure what the exact nature of the relationship between the UUP and Conservatives would be like at the time of the next general election.
At that stage he wasn’t a member of the UUP (and nor could he by while he remained a Commissioner). I had resigned as the UUP’s Director of Communications by the time he joined the party in February 2010; standing down as a Commissioner in order that he could contest the upcoming general election as the UCUNF candidate in Strangford. Twenty-five months later—-having been an MLA for less than a year—he was elected leader of the UUP, with a record-breaking majority of 81%–19%.
That’s a pretty impressive achievement. His reaction on Saturday reminded me a little of Sally Field’s acceptance speech when she won her second Oscar: “I haven’t had an orthodox career and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. This time I feel it. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me: right now you like me.” But will they still like him in two years’ time when the party faces the first election under his leadership?
He actually comes with one huge advantage—nobody really knows what he stands for. At no stage during his election campaign did he commit himself to anything in particular and even his speech on the day was a classic example of his ‘roving Mike’ approach, in which he paced from place-mark to place-mark and tossed platitudes to an audience hungry for hope and wary of more risk-taking.
He started out as the favourite and probably calculated that as long as he didn’t leave any hostages to fortune there wasn’t really any need to go head-to-head with McCallister on the Opposition stuff. He had already done the calculations on the key support from Fermanagh/South Tyrone (with Tom Elliott and Sam Foster), Upper Bann (Jo-Anne Dobson), Mid-Ulster (Sandra Overend) and South and East Antrim (Danny Kinnahan and the McCunes). He also knew that once Danny Kennedy stepped out of the frame (in fact, Danny blinked first in that particular poker game) the MLAs backing him would fall into line.
With that potential level of support gathered behind him—along with most of the ‘establishment’—it pushed the odds very heavily in his favour. But that support was made up of a collection of cabals and factions within the party, all of whom needed dog-whistle nods and winks to keep them on board. So while McCallister was setting the agenda in terms of media coverage, Nesbitt and his team were working on head counts, personal contact and buses. And, in the end, it paid off brilliantly.
Quite where he now takes the UUP is anyone’s guess. Again, I am reminded of a line from George ‘Dubya’ Bush: “You can fool some of the people all of the time and they’re the ones you have to concentrate on.”
He has been accused of gimmickry over his desire to spend twenty-four hours with someone from a ‘deprived’ background. Others have accused him of ‘patronising the poor.’ The DUP have dismissed it all as a stunt. It’s already been done by Matthew Parris, Michael Portillo, undercover reporters and faux celebrities. Yet the fact remains that he secured massive publicity for himself: people are talking about it—and most of those people are not in the chattering classes.
Okay, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he’s had the past two years to do something like that in his constituency. He could very easily have done it quietly, below-the-radar and then made contact with the groups and organisations who specialise in deprivation and poverty. His insight could have been put into the UUP’s last Assembly manifesto and might have allowed the party to make a more significant contribution to the Programme for Government debate a few weeks ago. It didn’t help matters that he dropped the idea into the same interview where he said that he would join the Executive at some point—a move that will bring him an extra £30,000 or so and a chauffeur!
He doesn’t seem particularly keen on policy substance. Indeed during the campaign he expressed a concern that if the UUP came up with good policies they would just be ‘stolen’ by the DUP and Sinn Fein. So how does he differentiate the UUP from the other parties? He has said he will set up policy advisory committees: but what will he do with the policies they produce? Image and communication structures are important, but if they are to be used to maximum effect there has to be a clearly defined vision, strategy and policy direction.
He’s also going to have a problem with Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. Both of those men are at the top of their game, in every single sense of that term. They control their parties from top to bottom. They have come through extraordinarily difficult circumstances to bring their respective parties to where they are today. I just don’t see that level of passion and commitment in Nesbitt. He can talk about ‘putting the past fourteen years behind us’: he can claim that it’s no longer necessary ‘to talk about the heavy lifting done by the UUP.” And he can do that because he wasn’t actually there to do the heavy lifting or defend the Agreement at critical moments! He is very much mistaken if he thinks that he can begin his leadership with a blank sheet and pretending that this is Day 1 of Year Zero.
Robinson and McGuinness will not allow him to forget that he wasn’t around to take the risks for peace. Every time he criticises them, or the Executive, they will respond with, “but 80% of your party want you to stay in the Executive with us!” Any time he expresses concerns about the Programme for Government they will remind him of a recent interview in which he said “I think the Programme for Government is ok.”
The DUP and SF didn’t get to where they are with make-it-up-as-you-go-along ideas. They defined an end goal, put in place a strategy and an agenda and then set out yardsticks by which to measure success. Mike says he has no ‘quick fixes’ or ‘big idea.’ I’m not even sure what his end goal is, other than putting himself in as First Minister ‘at the end of the second electoral cycle.’ He still insists that politics is about ‘getting power.’ Maybe so, but before the electorate entrust you with power they probably need some idea what you plan to do with it.
It comes down to this: for the UUP to be in a position to reclaim the post of First Minister, it needs to become the largest party in the Assembly and to do that it needs to outpoll both the DUP and Sinn Fein. At the beginning of last week Mike wrote; “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.”
Yep, fine and dandy stuff: fluffy and easy on the ear. But it’s a mere two years until the next election (to the European Parliament) and the UUP needs to show a pretty convincing sign of recovery at that point.
Here’s the scale of Nesbitt’s problem. In the 2003 Assembly election the gap between the UUP and DUP was 20,533 votes. By 2007 it had grown to 104,576. In 2011 (with turnout falling and the DUP losing 9,285) the gap grew again, to 110,905. That’s a startling turnaround: the gap between the UUP and DUP is now greater than the UUP’s vote in 2007. By any definition that is meltdown territory and it is not going to be reversed by a leader who happens to be comfortable in front of the microphone and camera. He’s right about there being no ‘quick fix,’ but he really does need the ‘big idea.’
There is, of course, the lingering question about why Tom Elliott stood down in the first place. This is what he said on March 17: “I have been feeling undermined and very suspicious of the people around me: a very small number of people have gone out of their way to try and drive me out of the position. They did make me angry, yes. In the last ten days there were a number of briefings to the media, a number of which were from our own party members. I knew if I was forced out at any time during the year it would be a similar type of (leadership) campaign that I went through when I ran for leadership and I wouldn’t want to put anyone through that. That ran for months and was tough and tiring.”
Well, that very small number of people did succeed in driving him out. But who were they? Let me tell you what I think. As Elliott has admitted, the campaign against him began within days of him becoming leader in September 2010. So it didn’t start with the ludicrously named ‘McNarrygate’ a few weeks ago. Most of that sniping was coming from two distinct sources: pro-Conservative elements who were unhappy with his ditching of the UCUNF project; and self-styled ‘liberals’ unhappy with the GAA, gays and ‘scum’ comments.
Yet it became clear from around last autumn that another group—this time made up of senior figures within the party—had decided that Elliott was incapable of winning over the media, let alone convincing a wider public that he could make the UUP a comfortable, credible alternative for them. In other words, under his leadership the party would continue to spiral downwards. They were also concerned about continuing progress by Alliance; the threat posed by the pending launch of the ‘new’ Conservative Party in Northern Ireland; and a recent research project from a QUB academic indicating that the public believed that the UUP had very little influence in local politics. But how to get rid of Elliott and, more crucially, with whom?
From their point of view Elliott’s removal had to be early enough for his replacement to have enough time to stamp his authority on the party. ‘McNarrygate’ was a God send for them, for it allowed them to impress upon Elliott the damage that ‘secret talks,’ electoral pacts with the DUP and a drawn out disciplinary process would do to both him and the party. Within a couple of days of taking out his nomination papers for the leadership (a requirement of UUP rules) he announced his resignation and pointed the finger of blame at an unnamed ‘very small number of people.’
It’s very hard to believe, though, that he took this decision alone or that it came as a complete surprise to a number of key people. Unlike West, Molyneaux, Trimble or Empey he sided very clearly with one candidate.
The day after Elliott announced that he was standing down I wrote that he had done the UUP ‘a service.’ I still think that’s true. I also still think that McCallister’s Opposition option would have been the better choice: but since I first met him back in 2009 Mike Nesbitt has displayed a steely determination to get what he wants. He isn’t the sort of politician we are used to in Northern Ireland. Whether that is a good thing or bad thing for the UUP is, at the moment, anybody’s guess.