April 18, 2005

Michael Howard: victim of circumstance

Posted by Anonymous Commentator

The one variable
With a campaign so uniformly atrocious that the Conservative leader has been reduced to stunts such as endorsing Labour’s (talk about let the enemy choose the terrain!), it's not immediately apparent how things can get worse for Michael Howard. That tomorrow's headline national opinion polls are going to be dreadful will simply make for some brave little boy, Mummy-wants-you-to-think-of-Englandism over at CCHQ. What matters is that still, 10 days into the general election which, to be fair to him, Michael Howard has been focused on since even shortly before his friends' coup d’ętat left him Conservative leader, no Tory attack, or exploited Labour fumble, has left the government on the defensive. Quite simply — and here's one for Maurice Saatchi — the Conservative campaign isn't working. The lack of panic speaks more of quiet inner defeatism than it does any great sense of resolution. Yet, as this column has noted, there is a chance that Mr Howard, through no accomplishment of his own, can preside over what ought to be seen as an adequate Tory recovery. The key thing to understand about this election is that it is the first one where the sustained anti-Tory tactical voting of the last decade will unwind. Seats which bemuse spectators as being 'natural Tory ones', yet somehow send Labour or Liberal MPs to parliament are suddenly much more fruitful prospects again. All of which chimes in with my suspicion that though the Tories are going to stay some distance under the 200 seats that would, amazingly, constitute a healthy enough result, some southerly losses are going to be compensated for by some midland gains.

One increasing certainty
After a former party leader and an outgoing MP had resiled from David Trimble's leadership, there was at least the prospect for the Ulster Unionist Party that things couldn't get worse. Except that they have, and then some. First there was a row, less spurious than some, about the UUP's absurd campaign slogan, which baldly stated that 'decent people' voted for the UUP. Now this may or may not be true, but in an electoral environment where, far from being hegemonic, and thus able to intimidate voters rhetorically, the UUP is on the back foot, already suffering from minority status, and desperately looking to win voters back, it was madness to insult lost and non-voters. Next — and still a matter of some small consequence in Northern Ireland — the Grand Master of the Orange Order opted to back the DUP's candidate in Fermanagh & South Tyrone, UUP defector Arlene Foster, over her UUP rival (and prominent local Orangeman). One of David Trimble's pledges on becoming UUP leader in 1995 was that he would break his party's link with the Orange Order. This never actually happened until this year, when it was the Orange Order that finally walked away from the UUP. Thus the well of bitterness is positively subterranean here. Yet, as possible future UUP leader and solitary MP (for what little that will be worth), David Burnside lamented, the consequence of Paisleyite and Trimbelite communalism is going to be a shredding of Unionist representation at Westminster, with possibly four (out of the province's 18 seats) being needlessly lost to nationalism. And still this wasn't the end of the UUP's woes.

In a bad news day probably without precedent for what remains Britain's most solidly law n' order party, the UUP have had to postpone the launch of their manifesto from today until Wednesday because one of their MLAs has been hauled in by the PSNI for questioning about possibly UDA-connected money laundering. The man in question, Michael Copeland, is of course defiantly innocent, but even at the level of being laughed at ('keep government clean: keep Trimble out' being the level of humour from Republicans still smarting from their serried run-ins with the police) it's cripplingly embarrassing. That Mr Copeland, for instance, shares his constituency offices with those of the party deputy leader and East Belfast candidate, Sir Reg Empey, is toe curling.

It's not easy to see what friends the ten odd MPs the DUP is likely soon to send Westminster are going to make for Ulster's Unionists. Even if, as the SDLP may also be wiped out, Sinn Fein's abstention from Westminster means that they will be Ulster's only MPs in the House of Commons. Of all the small-scale winners who can emerge from the very odd results we're going to see, few are going to have more responsibility thrust upon them than the DUP. The question is, can they change the habits of a lifetime and live up to their new role?

For the duration of the campaign, the Social Affairs Unit will be publishing regular commentaries on the progress of the UK election. These commentaries represent the views of the anonymous commentator, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

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And there's more to come...

One UUP councillor resigned this morning because of a "late night incident" in Lisburn council offices.

And another councillor was today linked to a porn investigation.

All this on the day they launch their manifesto.

You couldn't make it up...

Posted by: Belfast Gonzo at April 20, 2005 07:10 PM
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