The party looked all set to go to war over the draft budget, when David McNarry, the UUP’s finance spokesman, announced that it was “unable to endorse” the document.
The troops, though, were not yet mustered before they were stood down and yesterday McNarry appeared on the BBC’s Hearts and Minds, to confirm that his party was merely “reserving its judgement”.
His interview, alongside the DUP’s Simon Hamilton, should make uncomfortable viewing for UUP supporters. Their man wriggled and grimaced and backtracked and prevaricated.
As soon as the Ulster Unionists’ apparent resistance to the budget emerged, I expressed scepticism. I noted that the party had left open a semantic get out. Withholding endorsement is not the same as outright opposition.
I predicted that the UUP would complain, but ultimately fail to take a stand. After all, the two Ulster Unionist ministers had already abstained, rather than approve the draft, back in September. The u-turn was worse than expected.
On Tuesday, it appeared that the party had resolved to take the fight to the DUP. Two days later details emerged of a ‘unionist unity’ deal in north and west Belfast. By Thursday evening the UUP’s position on the budget had dissolved into the usual mealy-mouthed mulch.
On Hearts and Minds, Noel Thompson asked David McNarry for his party’s alternative to the draft figures. When Ulster Unionists are asked for their bottom line on anything these days, the response is similar - we need to talk, we need to look at it, form a committee, write a paper, do various 'stuff'. Anything other than articulate a clear, comprehensible position.
What does the average voter on the street now think when he or she hears the words ’Ulster Unionist’? I bet it’s not usually positive. I bet it mainly centres on disarray, confusion and crisis. And I bet that the budget debate, so far, hasn’t improved their opinion of the UUP.
It’s not all the party’s fault. As I argue in today’s News Letter, the system of government in Northern Ireland is flawed. It practically impossible to challenge the larger parties effectively from within the executive. The SDLP suffers from precisely the same problem.
The UUP’s troubles are exacerbated, though, because part of the party is itching for an electoral show-down with the DUP, while another part tries to encourage a ’unity’ pact. The party is divided, its coffers are empty and there’s no direction from the top, because the leader is an uninspiring functionary.
The Ulster Unionists berate the DUPes one moment, then cuddle up to them the next. They snipe at the Conservative party, then attempt to reaffirm the two parties’ political relationship. They oppose the budget, then they just want to talk about it. They even manage to accidentally use their mobile phones to leave abuse on long-standing representatives' voice-mail!
All this, once again, a matter of months before an election! If it were the plot of a political novel, it would be dismissed as too far fetched.
Even more far fetched is the faith of some activists, who genuinely believe that the party is on the brink of electoral recovery. Their evidence is little more than the ‘traditional’ edge to Tom Elliott’s unionism, his orange background and the fact that, unlike Empey, the public doesn‘t automatically associate him with David Trimble.
The UUP currently doesn't seem to have a purpose, much less a plan. It appeared to come close to acquiring one this week. Whether that was by accident, or by design, the party now looks more rudderless than ever.