Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Elliott and Conservative HQ in plot to finish off local party?

Tom Elliott, 8th December 2010:
After a meeting yesterday, it has been agreed that the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party will continue to engage in a serious and constructive dialogue about an on-going political and electoral relationship between the two parties as we look ahead to the next European and General Elections.

The UUP intend to put forward proposals for approval by their Executive committee in January 2011 which will then be considered by the Board of the Conservative Party. These proposals will include the understanding that any future UUP MP's and current and future MEP's will take the Conservative Party Whip.

In the meantime, both parties are conscious of the forthcoming District Council and Assembly elections in May 2011. In this regard, it has been agreed that:

1. Both parties will put up candidates in the District Council Elections, with a view to elected councillors co-operating in Local Government, as rules currently permit this to happen.

2. In the Assembly elections only the UUP will put up candidates. This is because under the current rules parties are unable to fight elections in coalition and once the elections have taken place are unable to enter a post election coalition within the Assembly."

Elliott had spoken the night before at a meeting in Westminster and, according to a Conservative who was there, expressed his belief that:
◦A franchise model is his view of the way forward. This means the UUP brand remains, elected UUP members would take the Conservative whip at Westminster

◦As a franchise, local Conservative competition is counterproductive – this presents a challenge for symbiosis with established local Conservative associations
That last point was in Steve Nimmons' own words but whatever Elliott said, it was interpreted by some (an interpretation which the UUP told me directly by email was wrong) that he wanted the Conservatives to close down their NI Branch as he felt they were “very detrimental to the relationship that we (the UUP and the Conservative leadership) can build”.

But however he may have put it, it was clear that he wanted the Conservatives locally out of the way.

Between 8th of December and Baroness Warsi's press-release last week, we had the N/W Belfast "Solidarity" pact between the DUP and UUP, we had Lord Empey finally confirming that he was a UUP not Conservative Lord and we had Mike Nesbitt backtracking on the agreement of 8th December re the taking of the Conservative whip. at Westminster.

Bear those three events in mind and remember what Baroness Warsi was promising last week:

1. The Conservative Party in Northern Ireland has committed itself to an ongoing programme of campaigning and development
2. New campaign headquarters in Bangor, Co. Down.
3. A full time member of staff will be based at the headquarters
4.One of the Party’s most senior campaign directors has been appointed to liaise with the Party in Northern Ireland.
5. The Party is committed to the development of progressive centre right politics which offer the electorate of Northern Ireland the opportunity to cast their votes for and participate directly with the national Government of the United Kingdom.
6.The Party will continue to review how Conservatives in Northern Ireland can play a full part in the Conservative Party as in every other part of the United Kingdom
7.Senior Conservatives in Northern Ireland will work with the Board of the Party to develop that relationship.
8. They desire to see Conservative Associations formed in every Northern Ireland constituency and an active programme of membership recruitment.

Points 5,6,7 could certainly equally apply in the scenario Elliott was envisaging (ie the gradual demise of a N.Irish Conservative Party).

Points 1,2,3,4 and 8 point towards a commitment from the "centre" towards the local party that certainly doesn't fit in with the UUP leader's expressed vision or hope.

And it's because of the last sentence I have problems with both Alex Kane's and Jeff Peel's conclusion (here and here)- they both believe that this proposal is, in effect, another stitch-up of the local party.

Now, it may well be (and Messrs Kane and Peel have got a much deeper insight into the workings and thinking of the Conservative Party than I ever will have) that it is indeed part of a longer term HQ plot to finish off the local branch here; Cameron and Paterson might be anticipating that the UUP will ride its slump and become a "profitable" (ie delivering MPs), self-supporting, centre-right "franchise" in the near future thus removing the need for a duplicate Conservative Party.

If true, then that latter assumption, less than three months before the Assembly Elections, is based on very shaky indeed foundations at this moment in time. With regards the former belief- as I commented on Jeff's blog, if Conservative HQ wanted to finish off the NI Conservatives, then a simple silence would have sufficed- why waste the money and time connected with, for example, appointing a full-time member of staff?

Whatever their UK leaders' motives, however, the ball has moved very firmly into the NI Conservatives' court now. If they sit back and wait for that promised central support to magically produce votes at the ballot-box, then Kane's and Peel's prophecy will be fulfilled before very long. 

Despite the dependency and entitlist mentality engendered by most of the its poltical elite, in Northern Ireland there is also an underlying, though at present rather dormant, underlying entrepreneurial strand. There is quite a strong tradition of self-help on the wider societal basis. In other words, there is an ideological potential for a modern Conservative Party to tap into but it is a medium/long term project which depends on a local party being clear what it stands for and also being capable of communicating that message to the electorate. It also needs a firmer on-the-ground involvement (eg joining the educational debate, getting involved in planning inquiries etc) than has previously been evident.

But  I believe, at this present moment in time, the space to at least think about those points has been given by the strategy announced last week- it's now up to the local party to make the most of the opportunity.


thedissenter said...

the fact that you are still trying to interpret what he said/she said tends to suggest that little is clear and there remains deep uncertainty about the relationships between. Then there is the fact that unless there are candidates in the Assembly election or at the very least Council level, then what is the campaign office for other than to build party structure on the never never. The next election is in four years (unless the coalition collapses) and that is a long time as a political party without electoral presence. Don't forget too that the UUP remain in Europe as part of the ECR alongside the Conservatives and while Empey my be a cross-bench Lord he still receives the Tory whip which remains in the spirit of the agreement that Elliott discusses.

O'Neill said...

Your first point, yes, the fact there was no UUP official comment on the Conservative comment (and vice-versa in December) was strange.

Re the campaign office and full-time official, when is that due to get off the ground? I'd agree with you re at leastr putting in candidates for the Council elections if nothing else for the experience of fighting elections once again and as a barometer about exactly where they stand. Should be caveat that this is long-term project, so if where they stand is not "far off the ground" it should be accepted as part of the building experence.

re the Assembly, I can honestly see where Jeff Peel is coming from when he says there should have been at least a token candidate but perhaps waiting for the likely fallout from an independent UUP implode makes sense as well?

Lord Empey and the other UUP peers, yes, although I'd say in the strict terminology of the agreement rather than the spirit. With Jim Nicholson in Brussels, was he part of the EPP before? If so, his influence would probably be increased if he were to leave the Conservative grouping so not much collateral damage there.

O'Neill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thedissenter said...

On the timing of the project then Alex Kane got it about right. this is the 21st year and it would be possible to look at what was lost (they once had a clutch of councillors in North Down) and the odd one elsewhere about the place. But then there was a loss of momentum and so on...

Long-term in this context increasingly looks like long-finger.

I think Jeff's point is that the Assembly is the bigger of the two events and profile there would 'trickle down'.

If you want to make the whole Conservative thing crash then Nicholson could return to the EPP and yes that would improve influence. But how mercenary and unprincipled would that look?

O'Neill said...

"Long-term in this context increasingly looks like long-finger."

They are where they are, which as I said elsewhere is not far off the ground at the minute. Why not take a longer period out to rebuild from ground-up rather than continue the pattern of the last few years which is as top-heavy pyramid structure with not a great deal below supporting it?

"If you want to make the whole Conservative thing crash then Nicholson could return to the EPP and yes that would improve influence. But how mercenary and unprincipled would that look?"

I genuinely don't see anything in continuing the relationship for either party; the point about Nicholson is that in the big picture of things, him withdrawing from the Conservative grouping in Brussels wouldn't matter much.