reports this morning that Sir Reg Empey is to step down within ten days, in order to let the UUP’s leadership battle begin in earnest. Other contenders can then officially join Tom Elliott MLA, the only hopeful who has openly declared an intention to stand, in a contest which will culminate in a vote, open to all party members, scheduled for the 23rd September (or the 24th if you prefer to believe the BBC).
Certainly Basil McCrea will break cover and add his name to the race, once the formalities are taken care of. Behind the scenes, his campaign is already cranking into gear. He offers a liberal alternative to Tom Elliott’s traditional Orange credentials. McCrea is known as a pragmatist who is happy to reach out across community boundaries and he is perhaps the party’s most polished media performer.
There is a perception, however, that the Lagan Valley MLA’s ’bottom line’ - the detail of what he stands for and the fundamentals of his political philosophy - is not known. He needs to put ’meat on the bones’ if his challenge is to become fully formed. Otherwise he will remain a 'least worst' option for members who are wary of Elliott’s Orange background, his Fermanagh location and his sympathy for ’unionist unity’.
There is also the intriguing suggestion that more contenders might come forward, after Empey steps down. Alex Kane mentions, in his News Letter column, ’a potential candidate’ who is hostile to the Conservative pact. At Devenport’s Diaries, blogsitter Martina Purdy, dismisses several names who have been linked to the leadership contest.
Alan McFarland, whose attendance at the Assembly has dropped away dramatically since he became an independent, is understood not to be interested in a comeback and a second tilt at the position. Jim Nicholson is UCUNF’s only successful candidate so far and has cooperated with Conservative colleagues in Brussels for years. Even if he were interested, he could hardly be the figure Kane is describing. Likewise Tim Lemon, who backed the Tory pact, and made an unsuccessful bit to unseat party chairman, David Campbell.
So the identity of the anti-Conservative candidate remains a mystery. A McGimpsey or even a Hermon, perhaps? The News Letter adds grist to the rumour mill by suggesting that the contender might be unelected.
An unelected but influential figure, sceptical about the current Tory party leadership and convinced that UCUNF is ’dead as Monty Python’s parrot’? Who does that sound most like, I wonder?