After this morning’s ‘teething problem’ I will attempt to be more accurate in my account of Basil McCrea’s leadership ‘launch’. The Merchant Hotel was the venue, chosen because it represents ‘what can be done’ when a local company devotes itself to high standards and ‘excellent training‘.
Unsurprisingly business was indeed a major preoccupation of McCrea’s address. He talked surprisingly frankly about his own experiences, setting up an ill-fated hi tech company in Northern Ireland. The Lagan Valley MLA clearly views himself as a candidate for risk takers, dedicated to removing ’the dead hand of the civil service’ from the country’s entrepreneurs.
As yet I have only a hardcopy of the speech, but I will publish it in its entirety, as soon as it reaches my inbox. Its most striking feature was the five pledges which McCrea unveiled, which will answer charges that there is no concrete policy behind his campaign.
The first, which I misreported earlier, actually promises that, should he become leader, McCrea will not take a ministerial portfolio, instead devoting all his energies to rebuilding the UUP.
The second vows to make education the first choice ministry for the UUP.
Third, McCrea pledges not to form electoral pacts, with the DUP, or anyone else. That means no unionist unity, but it also means no joint candidates with the Conservative party. Whether it also rules out taking the Tory whip, should the UUP return future MPs to the House of Commons, is not so clear.
The Lagan Valley Assemblyman also promises that all party MLAs will face a vote of confidence from party members at the end of the year, if he wins the race.
Finally, he pledges to remove the party officer team and compel elected representatives to attend executive meetings.
Clearly there is an argument to be had about each of the five points. McCrea is confident about his ability to put his point across in public and his promise to debate ’with anyone, anywhere’ is meant as a challenge to Tom Elliott.
He rather wrong-footed journalists this morning by urging them forward to confront his ‘united team’ at the front of the room. But the scribes duly proved that his prospectus is not fail-safe.
Asked, by the Irish News' Diana Rusk, whether a pledge to take the education ministry was not academic (pun intended), given that Sinn Féin and the DUP would most likely have the first ministerial picks, Basil ad libbed that the UUP would be the largest party under his leadership.
This type of baseless optimism is endemic at Ulster Unionist gatherings, and it invariably sounds like silly bluster, or worse, like a party out of touch with reality.
The Belfast Telegraph’s political editor, David Gordon, was also entitled to ask if the many UCUNF candidates backing McCrea had been wrong, when they talked up the merits of a Conservative link.
The context has changed, over the past two years, argued Basil. Perhaps. But meaningful involvement in national politics should still be a key aim for unionists.
The new generation which came to the fore during that Westminster poll was out in force to support their man. Paula Bradshaw spoke, alongside Lesley McAuley, who championed Basil as a leader for ’everyone, regardless of sexuality’, and Trevor Ringland.
John McCallister was master of ceremonies, the only MLA who spoke, although Danny Kinahan was present towards the end (I didn’t get a chance to find out whether that constitutes an endorsement). Several businessmen, Young Unionists, a former president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union and a Montupet shop steward also voiced their support.
With reports of more acrimony at a party debate in Bangor on Friday, it appears that McCrea’s campaign may be starting to make Elliott’s camp nervous (or perhaps a prominent rugby supporter within the UUP just wished he was at Ravenhill).
McCrea’s team is exuding confidence. If it has any basis in reality the leadership race could be a tight run thing.