Wednesday, as Bobballs observed, was a bad day for the UUP. Subsequently, after a decisive initial response, predictable vacillation from the party’s leaders rendered it a miserable week for Ulster Unionists and their new electoral force.
To get the misery started, North Antrim MLA Reverend Coulter, seemed to imply that no Muslim candidate should have been considered for a top BBC post, Head of Religious Affairs. As if to make it harder for party colleagues to extricate themselves from the mess which he was wilfully creating, he specified that, rather than speaking as a Christian minister, his comments were issued in his role as ’an elected public representative’.
In comparison to another member of his family, the senescent Presbyterian should normally be renowned for talking stout common sense. Faint praise, because he is vague, ancient, rambling and one of an almost entirely unnecessary breed, clergyman politicians. Whether he meant to make a point about faith leaders taking a greater role in religious programming, or not, what he actually said was deplorable. The party rightly distanced itself from his remarks with alacrity.
As it happened, any incipient furore which Coulter might have caused was soon overshadowed by Lady Hermon’s comments on the Conservative pact. In the course of explaining an overpayment which she had received, the North Down MP struck out at ‘disgraceful’ Conservative abuses of expenses, venting her visceral dislike of the Tory party, whilst blithely ignoring the fact that Labour MPs, and ministers, had acted just as despicably.
It was a piece of unthinking partisanship, directed explicitly at the party which has contracted a political marriage with Hermon’s own. Inevitably it preceded an unambiguous acknowledgment that the MP would not seriously consider standing on a Conservative ticket.
Initial statements from the UUP appeared to cut Hermon loose, which was, rationally, the only course of action open to the party. Afterwards, the Ulster Unionist leadership attempted to row back from disavowing their only MP, seemingly suggesting that the door was still open, should she decide to change her mind.
Rather than resolving the controversy at the earliest opportunity by affirming that, whilst Lady Hermon would continue to represent the UUP during this parliament, a Conservative and Unionist candidate would contest North Down at the next election, Empey and Kennedy ensured that the party appeared to be begging a recalcitrant, but indispensable member, to reconsider.
Given that Hermon’s unhappiness with the Tory deal has been an open secret for months, the response was desperately weak. Particularly because her statement need not be the earth shattering, paradigm shifting event which has been portrayed.
I have previously intimated that the North Down MP’s position is not particularly principled. We are not considering, here, a conviction politician, making a stand against a political philosophy which she views as anathema. Lady Hermon marched into the division lobby to support forty day detention, against the logic of every liberal and progressive argument. The party which she blatantly supports targeted tax rises at the very lowest earners. It dismantled free third level education. She is a New Labour loyalist and if she insists on tethering herself to a discredited government then she should suffer the consequences, should she choose to stand at the next election. O'Neill highlights the comments of a genuine progressive, Fred Cobain, who is endorsing the Conservative dispensation.
I have read commentary this week, from people who previously supported the UCUNF arrangement, which seems to be suggesting that, following Hermon’s decision, it has suddenly become a bad idea. With respect, that is nonsense. It is important to have an MP, but if that MP doe not represent broader opinion within the party, and if that MP is prepared, in league with a motley crew of Labour diehards and DUP mercenaries, unconscionably to support 40 day pre charge detention, she is far from indispensable.
The core idea at the heart of the Conservatives and Unionists pact is much too valuable to discard because of Lady Hermon. If Ulster Unionists are prepared to back it, wholeheartedly, in letter and in spirit, its strength will take unionism, and the party, where it wants to go.