The Ulster Unionists suffered the worst decline of any party in this month’s election, losing both their seats and 30,000 votes even on a higher turnout. In some cases, despite a hard-working campaign and perfectly competent candidates, the vote halved versus March alone.
Yet the party’s base remains conservative in every sense. It has no feel for how to reach out across the divide – as Mike Nesbitt (another victim of an astonishing decline last Thursday) had tried to do in February to the horror of many of his own candidates. There is a strand of opinion even within the diminished party which is in favour of Unionist Unity anyway – seemingly unaware that poor elections are bound to deliver just that anyway.
Where now for “Liberal Unionists”? I have long queried whether these really exist – of course there are people who are Liberal and favour maintenance of the UK, but prioritising constitutional politics is not what Liberals typically do. If the purpose of “Liberal Unionism” is a Northern Ireland for all, there are many non-Unionists serious about that too – and the electoral reality is that the only way to gain influence to deliver is to cooperate with them.
In short, this means there is no point in “Liberal Unionists” trying to deliver from within an ever-diminishing UUP most of whose members are not Liberal Unionists anyway. Remaining a minority of a minority of a minority is pointless.
Ultimately a realignment is going to happen. “Liberal Unionists” have now to decide whether they will take a leading role within it.