Tories’ best opportunity since 1992…

In the Newsletter today, Alex Kane lays out what he sees as the opportunities and the blocks to future Conservative success in Northern Ireland. Though he clearly scotches any notion of him returning the party of which he was once a key member. He believes the efficacy of the so-called ‘Cameron factor’ may play a crucial role in its long term quest to become a serious local player in Northern Ireland.

Update: Iain Dale adds his thoughts. One to watch for mainstream Tory opinion!By Alex Kane

At around the same time that David Ervine—a self-confessed member of the armed, active, terrorist, criminal and illegal UVF—was addressing Young Unionists in Cunningham House, the news broke that the thoroughly democratic James Leslie was defecting to the Conservative Party. There is no particular link between the two events, other than that they demonstrate what is happening at either end of the party.

James telephoned me last weekend to tell me of his move and I expressed my genuine sorrow. I first got to know him when he was an MLA for North Antrim and realised, fairly quickly, that he was one of the most able and talented members of the UUP. Of course the party will survive without him; but his departure is a real loss and I regret the fact that he has taken his expertise and abilities elsewhere. That said I wish him well. The manner of his going, without rancour and without criticism of the UUP or its’ leadership, is typical of the man.

For the Conservatives here, it is another welcome publicity blip, a signal that they can still attract political talent. But does it amount to much more than that, or can they break free from their minnow status and emerge as a major player in Northern Ireland politics? This is probably their best opportunity since the 1992 General Election to claw back some credibility, but, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, much will depend upon the “Cameron factor.”

Local Conservatives, since they were accorded official recognition in 1989, have been dogged with two problems. The first was the legacy of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Put bluntly, the vast majority of the pro-Union community blamed the Conservative Government and Mrs. Thatcher in particular, for expanding and bolstering the so-called Irish Dimension. Memories are long in local politics and in 1992 the Agreement still rankled with too many potential voters. But it is now over twenty years since that Agreement and a new voting generation has no particular memory of it or of Mrs. Thatcher.

The other problem was the very clear lack of effective support from the party leadership or Central Office. In 1992 a visit or two from John Major, to explicitly endorse the local Conservatives, might have made a difference in North Down. But at that stage Major was looking at the possibility of a hung parliament, in which case he would have found himself relying on support from the Ulster Unionists (in the days when they had 9 or 10 seats!). So he didn’t offer much in the way of electoral support to his own candidates.

And after the election, when he only had a majority of 24, he did need to keep good links with the UUP in Westminster; which meant that the fate of the local Conservatives was way down his list of priorities. So way down, in fact, that he did everything he could (under pressure from the UUP) to stop them contesting the 1996 Forum elections.

So, if the Conservatives are to make a breakthrough this time, they need David Cameron to come over and make a major set-piece speech in which he gives clear and unambiguous support to the Union and to his own candidates. And he needs to provide the funding for them to contest every seat at the elections for the Assembly (if there is one), the super councils and Westminster. There are seats to be won for the party, but only in a Province-wide campaign in which the Conservative hierarchy is seen on the streets and on the doorstep.

The problem, yet again, is that Cameron may also be looking at a hung parliament, in which he would need the support of the 9 or 10 DUP MPs. That being a possibility, is he likely to encourage his own candidates in seats where a further division within the pro-Union electorate could cause real problems? I regard Cameron as flaky on just about everything and I don’t expect Northern Ireland, or the fate of his local colleagues, to be exceptions to the rule.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 23rd September 2006.