Nothing like getting straight to the point and answering the question: Conservative Chairman Andrew Feldman visits Northern Ireland today to make it look like Central Office is right behind the Northern Ireland Conservatives, so that if, as is likely, they fail to get anyone elected at Council level five weeks from now, Central Office can claim it is not to blame.
I have been critical of the NI Conservatives in the past for focusing too much on London and too little on Northern Ireland itself, where they need the votes they have conspicuously failed to accumulate in the post-Agreement era. However, for the commitment they have shown to the cause of mainstream politics alone, they deserve better than this.
In September last year I put in a request to speak to Andrew Feldman, for five minutes even by phone, to see if he could persuade me Conservative Central Office was serious about Northern Ireland and knew what it was doing. Quite evidently, by the simple fact the conversation never happened despite my attempts for two whole months, the answer to the first is “no”. This is in stark contrast to the Secretary of State, who was constantly available to take and offer advice, and has earned many plaudits for it.
The answer to the second appears to be “no” too, although they are politically cuter than that. Standing aside for UUP candidates only for the UUP to U-turn three months later and deny any link whatsoever seems incredibly embarrassing – but sadly, it’s only the locals who were left embarrassed even though their only crime was naivety. Feldman and co, meanwhile, never had any intention of allowing their party to take a savaging at the polls in Northern Ireland alongside the one they are likely to take in Scotland (even though their coalition partners will probably do even worse, thus saving the Prime Minister from the worst of the headlines). This way, they have broken the link to the UUP and the UUP’s behest, while also leaving open the option of future rapprochement, all the while avoiding a hammering at legislative level. A master exit strategy, if ever there was one.
There will of course be fine words about how they are now right behind the local Conservatives as they rebuild – but they know fine rightly they are asking them to rebuild while they lead a UK Government which is increasingly unpopular in the northern UK regions and without a single elected representative to put forward as a serious local political role model. It’s an impossible task.
All of this really shows what a bitter game politics is. The North Down Association could not have done more during the recent election campaign, and will work its socks off again this time. It is, however, swimming against the tide – even within its own party. They really do deserve so much better.