Sunday, 14 March 2010

A Drunken Las Vegas Wedding

David Cameron had much to ponder last week-end and then he got a phone call from George W Bush urging him to intervene with the Ulster Unionists. The arguments about Ulster regaining policing and justice powers would have only added to his problems.

He was chosen as leader of the Conservative party to deliver a return to power. Electorally Cameron had to deliver two targets to gain a parliamentary majority – a swing of 9% on the 2005 result with the Tories gaining at least 40% of the national vote.

Neither was necessarily an easy task but the political backdrop should have made the electoral work simpler. The Labour party has been in government for nearly 13 years. It is lead by a Prime Minister whose personal ratings are so bad even his own family must be giving negative answers to pollsters. Our economy is coming out of its worst recession in decades. Despite this, poll after poll has been telling Cameron he is not hitting his electoral targets and that a hung parliament is likely. Less and less people are convinced by Cameron.

Why is this? The recession has probably made people more cautious of change and the fact that so far the consequences have not been as severe as first predicted has made some take a second look at Labour. However a significant part of it is Cameron himself. Who is he? What does he think? Where would he take our country? He has singularly failed to provide a coherent and consistent picture of his beliefs or his direction.

He wanted to be the heir to Blair then the British Obama. He was Mr UK until European leaders made threatening noises and he caved on his cast-iron guarantee of a Lisbon Treaty referendum. He was Mr Public Spending then Mr Austerity finally Mr Not-so-Austere with each shift defined by opinion polls. On a Monday he is the defender of marriage and family but on a Tuesday he’s trying to woo the gay rights vote.

He has never made his own public persona but always sought to copy others. His instincts are not to lead or defy the public mood but to follow it. His response to the drop in public support was to hire a second polling company, YouGov. Whether he is or not he has displayed all the characteristics of an empty suit. This lack of definition means that the more real a Cameron government becomes the more reluctant voters become about the idea.

If any of the mainland voters watched events in Northern Ireland this week a negative impression of Cameron was reinforced. A prospective Prime Minister has to project strength and an ability to shape events. Cameron demonstrated neither and was reduced to offering excuses. Excuses that further undermined the ‘partnership’ between the UUP and Tories.

The former UUP Director of Communications Alex Kane revealed how the UUP could not influence something as basic as a newspaper article or speech of Cameron’s. Now the Tories have shown themselves incapable of any influence on the UUP. The UCUNF partnership appears to have all the understanding, commitment and mutual respect of a drunken Las Vegas wedding.

How to develop Unionism’s relationship on the national stage is a key strategic challenge as the British Constitution and Ulster moves forward. The UUP opted for the limiting choice of an alliance with a single national party. Such an alliance only works if that national party gains power and the ability to influence them can be shown. Power is by no means assured and the Conservatives don’t listen to the UUP or vice versa. The DUP decision to maintain good relationships with the range of parties now appears to have been the wiser strategic choice.

If the election result is a hung parliament or small majority then there will be a real opportunity for Unionism to shape national events and protect Ulster’s interests. It is not the time for Tory lobby fodder. Unionism needs to be clear in its mind what it will seek to achieve from such a scenario and reinforces the need for Unionist Unity to secure 12 Westminster seats and not 10.

Appeared in Belfast News Letter 12/03/10

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