The Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionists
The UUP is but a shadow of its former self. Having been virtually obliterated in Northern Ireland it now sends just one MP to Westminster – Sylvia, Lady Hermon – and she is hardly known for her Conservative leanings; indeed, her voting record shows her to be New Labour to the core. Cranmer cannot but wonder how the professional, committed and loyal North Down Conservative Association will take to having her foisted upon them as their next candidate. One wonders if Mr Cameron is aware that not all UUP members are philosophically Conservative, and that its Socialist elements are as deeply embedded as the loyalty of many to the Orange Order which is not known for its commitment to equality, liberty, inclusivity or the ‘celebration of diversity’.
And yet there may be something in this. Certainly, there is much more in it for the UUP. But if Mr Cameron’s eyes are on Ulster politics a generation (or two) hence, rather than on some short-term strategic gain, this is an astonishing altruistic political gesture and evidence of a remarkable integrity.
Of course, there is much for the ‘working party’ to work out before this ‘new political force’ becomes a reality. It is not yet clear, for example, if this is to be a partnership of cooperation or an amalgamation of the two into one. If this is a ‘normalising’ process for Northern Ireland politics, it is not clear how the Conservative Party’s non-sectarian appeal, so carefully nurtured in the Province since 1992, is assisted by carrying a lot of Orange baggage. Hitherto, Roman Catholic Conservatives have been able to vote for ‘The Conservative Party’ in many parts of the Province, yet they may pause more than just a little before voting for a 'Unionist and Conservative Party’ with a hint of Protestant Orange, not least because it will clash with the green. At let us not pass over the gross insensitivity of the Conservative Party sitting in government with Sinn Féin in Belfast, whilst Lady Tebbit (amongst others) lives every day with the appalling consequences of the Brighton bomb.
And there is the further question of why Mr Cameron is rebuffing the DUP so early on in the leadership of Peter Robinson. If it is because of his ‘homophobic’ wife (Mr Robinson’s, that is; not Mr Cameron’s), this would be as unjust as judging the Conservative Party by the rantings of Ann Widdecombe (as it happens, Cranmer is most fond of Miss Widdecombe, but it is clear that very many are not. He merely makes the point that her name has become synonymous with certain unappealing ‘old fashioned’, ‘right wing’ attitudes which are manifestly not shared by the present Party leadership).
Cranmer happens to know that the DUP and Peter Robinson would have been most interested in exploring the possibility of a relationship with the Conservative Party. And when one examines the political philosophies of both in relation to foreign affairs, defence, education, the strategic fiscal and expenditure issues and the broad thrust of social policy, it is clear that the parties have very much in common. A ‘normalising’ process with the DUP may have been much more fruitful philosophically, if fraught with difficulties politically: it is, after all, manifestly easier to absorb a weaker party than it is to fuse with one in power. Whilst Sir Reg Empey may be prepared to relinquish his authority and abolish his office, this would never have been a possibility for Mr Robinson.
But Cranmer is intrigued by one nugget from a speech made by Sir Reg last March. He said:
“I have given David Cameron an undertaking that if he succeeds in forming a new group in the European Parliament after the 2009 elections, outside the federalist leaning EPP, then the Ulster Unionists will support him by joining his new Group. It is vital that we build a pan-Union front, involving like-minded parties who believe in the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. And it must spread to the European Parliament as well. The Union and the United Kingdom cannot survive if those who believe in it fight their own corners separately.”
Could the Conservative-UUP partnership be constructed on the very foundation upon which Mr Cameron built his own leadership?