The Ulster Unionist leadership contest continues to degenerate into further farce.
Firstly, Ulster Unionist MLAs seem to suggest that they will ignore their party members should they elect the “wrong” leader. Then one of the candidates demands the party whip be withdrawn from the other one for the appalling offence of disagreeing with him during the contest! If you cannot deal with a bit of disagreement, particularly on the fundamental issue of comments which can only be read as homophobic and racist, then you are in no position to lead.
Basil McCrea attacked Tom Elliott for gratuitous comments about attendance at GAA matches and gay pride marches. Contrary to what Elliott has suggested subsequently, he had in fact singled out those two events as objectionable, no others. This was not “simply a personal view”, it was a deliberate selection of two events as a means of playing, he thought, to the audience. Most would agree that the specifics of McCrea’s response, invoking Peader Heffron, were misjudged. He was, nevertheless, entitled to point to Elliott’s remarks and to state an objection to them.
On the other hand, Fred Cobain a week previously had suggested, contrary to the party’s stated position and both candidates’ pledges, that if the Conservatives did not meet Ulster Unionist demands, they would seek a deal with the DUP to avoid a Sinn Fein First Minister. The only deal possible as a means to achieve this would be either a merger with the DUP, or UUP candidates withdrawing in favour of DUP candidates in some constituencies. Thus, Cobain played straight into the hands of the UUP’s main rivals by raising “Unionist Unity”, while at the same time ending any prospect of cooperation with the Conservative Party leadership (which at that time was still conceivable). He also tossed out the window any prospect of the Secretary of State amending the First Minister election system – the Conservatives, particularly in a coalition government, are not about to yield to daft ultimatums. Given all of this, why was Elliott not calling for Cobain to be disciplined?
There is an old line in the Christmas special of the BBC comedy Yes Minister: “If Eric gets it, the party splits in three months; if Duncan gets it, the party splits in three weeks”. In this case, however, there is no Jim Hacker as third candidate to save the day. Currently, both candidates are keeping their actual policy positions internal, but making their mutual loathing apparent externally. They have 10 days to get that the other way around, or Yes, Minister, not for the first time, will prove prescient.