21 November 2008

A marriage of convenience?

Iain Dale is hailing the electoral pact between the Conservatives and UUP. Tom Harris is sceptical, and I have to say, I see his point.

For me, it's a marriage of convenience: the UUP have had a torrid time: they were the party of Ulster in the old days, standing firm against the Republic (and Republicans). Now they are not. The were the party of Protestantism. The DUP stole those clothes. They were the party of Unionism. But they were accused of 'surrender', and the DUP moved in. But that allowed them to be the voice of the moderate, pro-Agreement Unionist. But the St. Andrews Agreement saw Ian Paisley sit with Sinn Fein in the Executive. Even during the recent problems, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness managed to get the NI Executive working again without the need for Westminster to step in and suspend Stormont. So there's no solid foundation for the UUP to work on anymore, there are fewer supporters, and fewer members. The Tories make a nice, UK-wide sugar-daddy, with access to a massive network of activists and supporters elsewhere.

And what do the Tories get? The chance to put such a well-respected (on this side of the North Channel and Irish Sea, at least) figure as David Trimble in their Government. And extra MPs, which may come in handy, in the event of a hung Parliament or small Commons majority.

But there are risks. For the UUP, it could be the final humiliation: having lost the 'Unionist' bit of their name to the DUP, by allying with the Tories they risk losing the 'Ulster' bit as well. This could push them further into the wilderness.

And for the Tories, it may not come off. What if Sylvia Hermon were to lose North Down? What if the UUP were to get badly hit in a subsequent election, at any level? After the mockery the Tories had to endure at being wiped out in Scotland and Wales, what would happen if this pact were to get wiped out in Northern Ireland? They'd be the only party to stand in all four nations, but only a credible force in one of them. For a Unionist party, how embarrassing would that be?

Besides, the Governmental role might not be all that great. The logical choice for a UUP Cabinet post would be Northern Ireland Secretary - from the idea that a Scottish MP makes the best Scotland Secretary and a Welsh MP the best Wales Secretary. Now the state of the Tory Party in those two rules out a Scotland Office staffed by Scots - the best the can manage for Scotland is David Mundell (from a shorltist of one Scottish MP on that standard) and Ben Wallace, MP for Lancaster & Wyre (though former MSP). For Wales, the "Welsh constituency" standard produces a shortlist of three MPs. The Shadow Secretary of State, Cheryl Gillan, is not one of them. So it would be pointless having a UUP Northern Ireland Secretary.

It would also be risky: more than in Scotland and Wales, the NIO has to act as an 'honest broker', a neutral mediator between the two communities. That can't be possible with a UUP Cabinet Secretary. Indeed, the whole Government is weakened on that score. Besides, if he were to take it, Northern Ireland's MPs (at least the ones who actually take their seats) would be horrified that the Secretary of State was out of their reach, in the Other Place. And if he were to get another job - for Trimble is would have to be Cabinet level - opponents could rightly ask why they had to import a politician, suggesting that there was such a paucity of talent among Conservative ranks that they had to poach a whole other party to fill the Government.

But if it works, the UUP get a new lease of life, and the Tories can claim to be the only party credible in all four nations of the UK. What a claim to make.

But what no one has said yet is this: if this works, and the UUP moving closer creates a viable setup, what of the Scottish Tories? Could they be de-coupled, and move away from the current situation to a relationship similar to the new one established over the North Channel? Could bringing Reg Empey closer move Annabel Goldie further away?

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