Henry Hill: Will the defections that never were shake Northern Ireland's Conservatives from their complacency?
Henry Hill is a British Conservative and Unionist activist, and author of the blog Dilettante. Follow Henry on Twitter. He is also editor of the non-party website Open Unionism, which can be followed on Twitter here.
What do you do when you realise that your white knight isn’t riding to the rescue after all?
That is the question that faces the Northern Ireland Conservatives this week, as Basil McCrea and John McCallister announced their intention to establish a new “liberal unionist” party. The pair resigned from the UUP after the announcement of a ‘Unionist Unity’ candidate in the Mid Ulster by-election.
Both of these defections have been expected for some time. The question has always been where they would go afterwards. They had four options: remain independent unionist MLAs; establish a new party; join the Lib-Dem-alike Alliance Party; or join (and inevitably lead) the NI Conservatives. Of these, the worst outcome for the Tories was a new party.
It represents a wound on two fronts. First, it brings a new party with a charismatic and elected local leader right onto the territory the NIC’s were hoping to occupy. Second, it probably hammers the final nail into the coffin of the notion that the NI Conservatives are likely to attract many UUP defectors and should thus plan around such defections.
A new liberal pro-union party lead by McCrea, provided it can chart the treacherous course between the UUP and the Alliance, will be fighting for exactly the same non-sectarian centre-right ground that we’re supposed to be after, but it will be doing it with the benefit of elected spokesmen and plenty of press attention. The NI Conservatives’ path to political relevance – not an easy road to begin with – has just got significantly steeper and narrower still.
The second point is also significant. The NI Conservatives have been talking up the notion of defections from the liberal wing of the Ulster Unionists for years now. If they ever happened, they’d be great: an immediate increase in relevance, credibility and media exposure all in one go. But they never have, and with McCrea’s new unionist party in play it’s hard to see how they ever will.
For a start, McCrea and McCallister were the most likely potential defectors. They attend Conservative events. In fact, both of them showed a delegation of Conservative Future members (of which I was part) around the Northern Ireland Assembly and stuck around for the social afterwards. They single-handedly sustained the credibility of the “wait for defections” approach, and it was not unrealistic to think that they might cross to us.
That they didn’t doesn’t just mean that the Conservatives’ best hopes for defections have passed them by, but that future liberal-leaning unionists who get sick of the UUP have somewhere else to go. Where even UKIP have managed to attract one defector, it’s hard to see where future Conservative defections might come from.
But the question that the NI Conservatives and CCHQ need to start tackling is this: if McCrea and McCallister’s defections were credible possibilities – and they were – why didn’t they happen? What is the party doing wrong that two men so close to it in political and personal terms didn’t think they had a future in it? Where do they go from here?
Sadly, I’m not privy to the thought processes of either McCrea or McCallister. What is interesting to note is the timeline of events following their defections. First they ruled out the Alliance, but not the Conservatives. Then it looked as if they were going to establish a new party. Then they announced that any final declaration of their intentions would probably have to wait until Easter, and news broke that they had opened contact with our party. Yet only week later we have the announcement of an as-yet-unnamed new party.
From my outsider’s perspective, those look like the surface ripples of failed negotiations. The pair gave themselves a month’s breathing room and talked up the possibility of the Tories, but they have since committed themselves to a new party after only a week. Given that the NI Conservatives ought to have been bending over backwards to get these two onside, what the hell happened?
Given that timeline it might not be the case that either of them was put off by longer-term, structural problems with the NI Conservatives. But according to some party members I’ve spoken to, the prospect of defections has fostered a certain level of complacency on the part of the local party. Of particular concern was the fact that campaigning tends to be fairly last minute (no candidates building local profiles in seats over the long term), fundraising tends to be haphazard, and there is no NI Conservative party leader elected by the full membership. If there’s some good to come from McCrea and McCallister passing the NI Conservatives by, it would be shaking them out of that apparent lethargy.
For the most part, the debate in Scotland at the minute consists of the SNP and Westminster trading contradictory legal advice and detailed policy papers. So in the midst of all this rather impenetrable and wearisome grown-up politics, the Glasgow University’s mock independence referendum was a breath of fresh air, not to mention a handy opportunity to end this column on a high note.
The event, organised by a coalition of eight student political societies, was fought using the same question that will appear on ballots for the real referendum in the autumn of next year. Despite the SNP’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon turning up to help, in the end students chose the Union by a margin of 62 per cent to 38 per cent. 2589 students took part in the poll (of an electorate of 23,000), but that’s student politics for you at the best of times. You can watch the declaration of the result – including some very unhappy separatists – in this short clip.