Monday, 6 September 2010

McCrea upbeat as he challenges Elliott to debate in public.

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.


slug said...

Thanks - interesting.

DR said...

chekov, did you get wet too? very plush setting though, I too read the first pledge the same way you did, and thats understandable as Basil has being saying we should go into opposition for years, seems he has changed his did a U-tune on that one.
The fact that he only has the backing of one MLA so far should raise questions about whether he would have the support to be a strong leader, and he has been divisive in his campaign to date.
As for his offer to debate anytime anywhere, surely internal party debates should be kept internal if possible, fences are much easier mended after, certainly an ambush of your opponent on the Nolan Show is not that place.

slug said...

DR I'm not so sure about keeping the debate private.

It will be useful for unionism, and the UUP members, to see how the two leaders fare when putting out their stall and public debate is part of that.

It was good for the Conservatives when they got Cameron, good for Labour as they now go through the same exercise.

I think its bad for parties when a leadership change happens without a debate about direction - and that debate being in public is part of the process to see how the broader press and public respond to the candidates.

Also - candidates should not be divisive but it was Tom who initially said that "unlike other party members" he was not going to gay or GAA events. This was douby divisive on the part of Tom: (i) it was narrow-minded and negative intrinsic terms but (ii) it was also clearly a personal swipe at Basil McCrea who had attended an event at Pride Week just days beforehand.

Progressive Unionist said...

Thanks for the update Chekov.

DR - I would take the backing of only a few MLAs (i.e. John McCallister who is a very impressive younger MLA) as a blessing - most of the UUP MLA team are utterly useless, and are either completely crap former councillors elevated beyond their abilities, or idiot 'hardline' numpties like David McNarry who's sectarianism should have no place in the UUP.

I had doubts about Basil at first - but it's clear he's standing on solid ground now - an inclusive, forward-looking Unionism that embraces bring in pro-Union Catholics, pro-Union LGB voters and others from across the centre ground.

The only reason the DUPs want Tom to be leader is because he'd merge the UUP into the DUPs (if not in name, then in reality through 'cooperation' or whatever) -

Basil's ruled it out - no pacts with the DUP, no pacts with the Tories.

Just an independent confident party standing for what it believes in.

The UUP will be strong again, it will stand on the centre-ground, it will welcome Catholics, it will welcome GAA players, it will welcome gay people and it will build support for the Union across Northern Ireland's centre ground.

Dilettante said...

A shame about his lack of support for the Conservative link, but he seems the preferable of the two candidates. Hope there's a leader's debate I can catch on iplayer.

Foom said...

I agree that business, being a preoccupation of McCrea's is not a surprise. Nor that he views himself as a risk taker and supporter of entrepreneurs. However it does serve to highlight the gulf that exists between the UUP's priorities and that of the working class electorate.

He may well dedicate himself to removing "the dead hand of the civil service" but when almost 40% of all NI jobs are in the public sector, he will undoubtly face much opposition from the 1000's of civil service workers as well as the pubs, coffee shops, newsagents and other local business that rely on them having a wage to spend.

Man of the people? Well maybe only the rich ones.

slug said...

Foom - the economy here is important to all those who have children and want them to have good jobs. That is what Basil is saying. Our private sector is in great need of growth. To depend so heavily on Westminster without any effort to develop the private sector is not serving our children long term - so Basil's position is clear, substantial and mainstream.

O'Neill said...

I think the last week has proven that he is by far a more polished media performer than Elliott and that is crucial now in modern politics, even here in NI. Neither candidates nor the party should be running away from a robust public debate because if they are appointed leader that's what they are going to face consistently from the DUP. If Elliott can't cope with McCrea in apublic debate then he's going to be eaten alive *if* he's thrown at the Dupes.

I think Tom Elliott has been wrong to try to portray himself as a man capable of riding the two horses of "tradition" and "progressive inclusivism" simultaneously. It's not possible, as has been shown in the terrible mess he has got himself in over the GAA/gay issue. He is a *traditional* Unionist who believes in *traditional* Unionist values, that's what he should be selling himself as.
What that would mean in trying to differentiate and sell the future UUP in terms of policy and culture is up to him to explain.

McCrea, on the other hand, will not, for the mirror reason, unite the party. His vision of a future UUP which is comfortable with its leader, for example, attending Gay Pride or GAA games is not going to happen with a party which contains the likes of McNarry, Cobain, Kennedy etc etc and etc amongst its higher echelons.
So, how does he propose to lead effectively such a party where his vision isn't shared by a substantial proportion of the party?

It would have been good to have had a few more concrete suggestions on policy direction, but until the internal direction of the party is sorted out one way or another then it's academic.

Chekov said...

DR -soaked to the skin. And I tend to agree with Slug that the UUP leadership election debate should take place in as broad and open an arena as possible. The idea that it's a purely internal matter, which only concerns party members, might be true of the vote, but it's hardly modern and it'll not inspire possible voters.

Foom - I'm afraid that that attitude, it if prevailed, would ensure that Northern Ireland was always dependent, limited and a basket-case.