It's not often that political leaders can meet without their plans leaking but months of negotiations between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionist Party have taken place without the Westminster village reporting on them. Following much spadework by Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson MP, David Cameron and the UUP's Reg Impey have announced a joint working party that may result in what Mr Cameron calls the "creation of a new mainstream political party". The two men have authored a joint article for today's Daily Telegraph.
Up until the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1986 the two parties were formally linked and many Unionist MPs served in Conservative governments. This initiative may see a return to those days but the UUP is a shadow of its former self. It has just one MP at Westminster, Sylvia Hermon, and its former leader, David Trimble, defected to the Conservatives last year. The UUP remains a reasonable force in local government, however. 115 of NI's 582 councillors belong to the UUP compared to 126 Sinn Fein councillors and 182 DUP councillors.
From the UUP's perspective an alliance with the resurgent Conservatives may offer the best hope of electoral recovery. A recent YouGov poll of NI voters, commissioned by Owen Paterson and NI Conservatives, found that "45% would be Very Likely or Likely to vote Conservative at the next general election if given the opportunity."
Editorial comment: "ConservativeHome warmly welcomes this initiative. Although the Conservative Party has been contesting NI elections since 1992 this potential merger represents a serious opportunity for the Tories to emerge as the only party with seats in every part of the UK. Northern Ireland residents should be able to vote for non-sectarian parties and for an alternative to the big state politics of both the DUP and Sinn Fein."