The Belfast Telegraph launches its monthly attack on the Coalition Government, specifically David Cameron, today. Since it is much the same as the last one, it is unlikely to have sold too many papers.
However, the Conservative leadership will surely come to regret wasting the summer in Northern Ireland, and likely also Scotland. As the DUP continues to head out to local communities to register voters and the Ulster Unionists move on with their selection process, it is the Conservatives who are on the receiving end of political comment in the media and at the civic events. The opportunity existed over the summer to capitalise on the Ulster Unionists’ confused relationship with the DUP (latest example is the discussions on “Unionist Unity” in next year’s Belfast City Council elections revealed in today’s Newsletter), attract members, and start an Assembly Election campaign. Instead, the party leadership opted to close the office, remove any staff, and tell local members not to campaign. All the evidence suggests that the party leadership remains of the view that local and Assembly elections are not worth fighting (whether or not it allows candidates to stand is largely irrelevant, as no party can achieve anything without active support from the leadership), provided the new Ulster Unionist leader commits to taking the Conservative whip at Westminster. On the Conservatives’ own terms as stated in July, this would be a nonsense – but if they were otherwise intentioned, they would long since have worked out that now was the time to strike.
Furthermore, all the evidence suggests that the same applies to Scotland. The Scotsman newspaper, two weeks ago, claimed leader of the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament, Annabel Goldie, had not spoken to David Cameron since May; her Liberal Democrat opposite number Tavish Scott went so far as to suggest that Cameron had not given Scotland a thought (‘He has a [LibDem] Scottish Secretary and that’s it’). I find both of these statements hard to believe, but nevertheless they seemed to go unchallenged. Those of us out on the fringe are certainly feeling the cold, as the local media and civic society jumps all over the ‘cuts agenda’ without even the remotest support – even in the form of basic information – for the defence!
The Coalition Government has, overall, got off to an impressive start. David Cameron in particular has proved himself a leader of exceptional judgement; Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms have been judged positively (even by some in Northern Ireland!); some of the other work on schools and hospitals in England looks promising. However, the Conservatives are perceived as having left Scotland to the Liberal Democrats and Northern Ireland to the local parties – and the suggestion that this is because of a ‘review’ holds no water given upcoming legislative elections in both jurisdictions in May. This raises serious questions of whether the Conservatives will ever again be able to form, on their own, a legitimate government for the whole of the UK.
My membership of the Conservative Councillors’ Association runs out tomorrow. Given the total lack of political support for elected representatives outside England and Wales, I have seen no reason to renew it.