When you first read the letter from The Conservatives to the leadership of the UUP, in which they advise the UUP to disband and effectively let The Conservatives take over, you can’t help but laugh at the sheer audacity and cheek of it. Here you have a party with no foothold whatsoever in Northern Ireland suggesting to the oldest party in the province – and despite recent election results, a large, well represented party - that they pack up shop and move out of the way so that The Conservatives have a free run. It appears idea of crazy men. However, the intriguing thing is that it isn’t. At least, while the idea may be crazy, the men behind it most certainly are not.
Don’t underestimate The Conservative Party: they are not stupid – quite the opposite – and don’t do things without first thinking of the consequences. If we look beyond the suggestion within the letter we start to understand that the suggestion wasn’t at all serious but the message behind it most certainly was – any UUP led partnership with the Conservatives in NI is over. The Tories in NI will play their game now and it will be their rules. If the UUP want to make use of The Tories in future, they will have to accept that.
It’s easy to say that the UCUNF project was always doomed to failure but it wasn’t and for the most part the only thing The Conservatives did wrong was formalising the link up in the first place. After that, every mistake was down to the UUP and those mistakes were borne from the UUP’s own organisational problems. It’s likely that had the UCUNF project never happened, the results we saw for the UUP would have likely been the same save for one or two notable exceptions (yes, I am referring to Lady Hermon). The UUP have no significant activist base (members are not activists by default) and their constituency associations are run almost autonomously by their Chairs.
The only way the project would have worked is if the two parties formed a joint executive that really did have executive power over the two parties. It’s important to be a democratic party, of course, but there are some areas where it’s not democracy that is needed but instruction and orders. None of this brief retrospective analysis is entirely scientific but from the outside looking in, it always seemed like the UUP were in it for the money, so to speak, whilst The Conservatives genuinely thought they were entering a genuine partnership based on mutual objectives.
Now, it seems to me, they Conservatives have re-evaluated exactly what benefit, if any, a formal link with the UUP can bring and have summarised that there is none. Consequently the Conservatives have to assess how they can steal the UUP vote because without a good chunk of that, it’s unlikely the Tories in NI will make any significant electoral impact. How do they do that? Well, getting a few disillusioned UUP members or, even better, elected reps to leave the UUP and join the Tories would be a good start. It’s always easier to campaign with candidates that already have a profile in the community.
My guess is that this letter was an initial step in that strategy. It is a message to UUP members that the Conservatives are serious about their ambitions and that the UUP are now an obstacle to achieving them. The mention of the Secretary of State and The Prime Minister being entirely supportive of the proposal (though one wonders just how much consideration David Cameron really afforded the issue) is there to reinforce the message. How successful the Tories will be in NI is inextricably linked to the UUP whether they like it or not – the stronger and more successful the UUP are, the harder the Tories will have it but if the Tories continue with what I believe is their strategy, then they could well speed up the decline of the Ulster Unionists.