David Campbell and Tim Lewis, chairmen of the Ulster Unionist and Northern Ireland Conservative Parties respectively, released a joint statement last week, explaining the process by which joint parliamentary candidates will be chosen.
To summarise, each Conservative or UU association in a given constituency will shortlist one prospective candidate. David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey will, at this stage, have the power to veto any nominee to whom they particularly object. The joint committee will then be asked to draw up a final list of preferred candidates from those hopefuls who have successfully negotiated the first two steps. Finally the Ulster Unionist Executive and the Northern Ireland Conservative Council will each be asked to ratify all the individual candidates.
This procedure at least has the merit of clarity and it should, theoretically, produce a list of moderate, agreed contenders, shorn of any especially contentious personalities. There is also scope for disagreement and controversy, of course, particularly when the committee’s choices are submitted to a wider assembly of party members, represented by the UU’s executive or the Conservatives’ council. The joint committee itself must remain discreet about any strenuous dissent which marks its deliberations.
There is a further obstacle which could await UUP selections, if the party decides that members of its Assembly team would be better deployed at Westminster. Although any successful MLA who subsequently became an MP would be bound to relinquish their Assembly seat at the next electoral opportunity, an instance in Scotland demonstrates that other parties would scarcely allow such a detail to dissuade them from alleging hypocrisy by Conservatives and Unionists over their attitude to double jobbing.
If we were to extrapolate Labour’s logic in attacking prospective Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk MP, John Lamont (an MSP), for possible double jobbing, we might conclude that no politician could switch between legislatures unless their terms ran flush. Conservatives have been quick to point out that David Cameron committed his representatives to, ‘give up the other seat at the first available electoral opportunity’, should they be elected to a second chamber.
There is no inconsistency in Scottish Tories fielding Mr Lamont for a Westminster seat, so long as he is prepared to stand down from Holyrood in 2011, should he become an MP. Nor would there be an instance of hypocrisy should Tom Elliot, to take a prominent example, fight and win Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 2010, assuming that his commitment is to stand down from Stormont at the next Assembly election.
That hasn’t prevented Labour and the Lib Dems attacking Conservatives on precisely that pretext in Scotland. I doubt that Northern Irish parties will be any more careful about the basis of their arguments.
It’s a consideration Conservatives and Unionists should bear in mind as they ponder candidate selection.