The UUP believes it could win 24 seats in next year’s Assembly elections if the Conservatives do not field candidates, but this number could fall by two if they do.Now there's confidence and there's cloud cuckoo land! From where on earth do the Ulster Unionists draw the notion that they'll gain between 5-7 Assembly seats in next year's election?
My suspicion is that they've simply fallen back on figures from the European election.
There's a growing history of the UUP setting itself up for humiliation by making outlandish pre-election predictions. Does the party never learn? You can't factor in events, but as it stands, the UUP will do well to keep 17 seats. At the very outside it might nick 18. There's a very strong possibility that the figure could be as low as 15.
24, Conservative candidates or not, is pie in the sky.
Update: There appears to be some confusion about whether the 24 figure can be attributed directly to Tom Elliott. This is being cleared up. The Irish Times certainly must've permed the figure from somewhere and 'the UUP believes' would suggest that, at the very least, a party source briefed the paper on the figure. Hopefully this will become clear soon.
Further update: The UUP says this conversation took place among a small group of people, and was not a speech to 'Friends of the Union', as reported in the Irish Times. That certainly seems plausible as, to the best of my knowledge, that group no longer exists in any organised way. The figure Elliott gave was apparently purely demonstrative. I.e. were the UUP to be heading toward 24 seats, the Conservatives could cost them two. The point was simply that the Tories running candidates could cost the UUP seats.
Final Update: I should add that Elliott says he did not call for the NI Conservatives branch to close.