It’s been a full day. A quick trip up to the Stormont Hotel to hear how David Cameron would answer the audience’s questions before hearing down to Belfast Cathedral for a spot of bell ringing. Then over to St George’s Market, lunch in Victoria Square and home to get the lights on the Christmas Tree.
But the day started with Cameron Direct. The party leader’s road show that calls in at venues around the country to allow David Cameron to respond to real people’s concerns unmediated by spin doctors and media advisors. Except the audience isn’t average.
It’s not a representative sample of the local community. Instead, it was full of people who asked for invitations. People from local businesses and charities, students, teenagers in pin striped suits hoping to become candidates, and the odd nosey blogger! (Kathleen was there with the Slugger too.)
It might have been a very different experience if Team Cameron had stopped off at Connswater Shopping Centre and perched their leader on top of John Major’s soap box.
Cameron was across in Northern Ireland today for a spot of hotel hopping: a business breakfast at the Culloden, Cameron Direct at the Stormont, and then across to address the Ulster Unionist Party Conference at the Ramada and talk about what it would mean for the UUP to form an alliance – marriage of convenience, some might say – with the Conservative Party. What a way to celebrate his third anniversary of being elected party leader.
It was about two years ago that I shared a taxi back from the airport with a NI Conservative who lives a street or two away. He was returning from the Tory Party conference, and was very enthusiastic about David Cameron.
So I was curious to see today what Cameron would be like. What he’d say. And what would be the local reaction to his style and his message.
Firstly, Cameron is surprising tall – most serious leaders are an inch or two above average – doesn’t wear a wedding ring, has a fresh bandage on his left thumb and has a nice technique of ever-so-slightly mocking himself or telling self-deprecating jokes.
In his opening remarks, he talked about “launching a new force in Northern Irish politics” to get away from traditional unionist versus nationalist and move to a politics that would be about education and “mending broken parts of society”.
Looking back, it felt like he had three things in the back of his mind this morning.
- Don’t talk too specifically about NI issues in case you are caught out.
- Bring everything back to values that can be explained nationally, but will particularly resonate with NI voters, and Ulster Unionists in particular. (So, for example. he quickly ticked the box about talented folk from NI serving in the armed forces, and kept coming back to family values.)
- Call it The New Force and don’t draw attention to the lack of a name.
So there was no mention of Paisley, Robinson or the DUP. No mention of Sinn Fein. No talk about the practicalities – or impracticalities – of the next UK government being potentially closer to the UUP than any other party in the NI Executive. Though not entirely Cameron’s fault ... the issues didn’t come up in the questions.
The event was attended by a hundred or so people. Very well stage managed. We were all ushered into the room ten minutes before it started. Camera-friendly lights flooded the stage. Audio feeds to the TV crews at the back of the room. Mics handed around for questions to be asked, and then immediately removed – deliberately or not? – making it question and answer, set the topic and then listen to two minutes on the topic, rather than a conversation.
All the branding was Conservative. The introduction and welcome came from Jeffrey Peel, the vice chair and public face of Conservatives NI, and there were no recognisable UUP elected representatives in the room.
The first question asked how he’d be able to follow through on his appeal to Catholics to support the Conservatives in Northern Ireland given the close links with a Unionist party.
“If Catholics in Northern Ireland who share my view on the family environment ... if I can’t get them to support a new force, we will have failed.”
He admitted that The New Force wasn’t a guaranteed success for the two parties:
“We’re both taking a risk with each other ... Let’s get the most talented people to serve.”
And having mentioned about “putting candidates in every constituency” he went on ...
“We’ve been standing in Northern Ireland but it’s been very hard work ... [The New Force] offers the chance for normal politics, offers the change to get involved in politics.”
Very strong on Britishness, the strength of the Union and representation or the entire UK. Later on he came back to a similar theme theme.
“No one party has a monopoly of wisdom about the union.”
Presumably that includes the UUP?
“The Conservative Party is organised in Northern Ireland but is very small. The Ulster Unionist Party is large and has a long and proud history.”
“Coming together helps get The New Force off the ground and give it credibility.”
He went on to talk about success being about getting new people involved, and The New Force needing new candidates, needing the best people on the ballot paper. Sounded a bit like he was suggesting that the UUP didn’t currently have the strongest possible candidates?
At one point he praised George Osborne and called him “the next Chancellor of the Exchequer”.
While talking about environmental issues, he made a strange comment about introducing decentralised energy which would allow people who generate power (through windmills etc) to sell their excess back to the grid, which sounds very like what NIE already support.
Asked about advice he might give the US Republican Party, he noted their fascination with “guns and God” and pointed out that when suffering a loss after a long period in power, the wrong temptation was to go back and bolster your core vote. Elections are won in the centre ground. Those are the people you’ve got to reach.
There were a lot of questions about the current economic situation. Too many to pay attention to all the answers! But it seemed to come down to the Conservative Party making things easier for enterprises, society and general living.
“The state doesn’t create wealth – it’s people who do.”
Asked who he would have in his cabinet if he had to take someone from another political party, he didn’t immediately grab Sylvia Hermon or any other local politicians. Instead he opted for the nearly-more-Conservative-than-Labour Frank Field or Lord Adonis (who was unfortunately recently reshuffled out of Education – where he had been so strong – to take the Transport brief).
Cameron slickly wrapped up the last question with his closing remark. You could see him trying desperately to remember Eoghan Quigg’s name, but it didn’t come. So instead it was just “a talented young Northern Ireland man” on the television who was to be a vision of other NI talent that should be working for the greater good and being represented in Cameron’s cabinet.
And then he bounded off the stage and didn’t hang around to talk afterwards.
AiB normally stays away from posting about politics, but my impressions from Cameron’s performance this morning were that for all the laudable talk about “normal politics” and “The New Force” that would allow politicians and voters to move away from tribal divides, there are some uncertain and unexplored downsides.
Will it not be very difficult for the Conservatives to link with the UUP and manage to appeal to a wider constituency in Northern Ireland, particularly while the other parties remain tribal.
If the Conservatives and UUP were successful – perhaps if the DUP suffered some kind of colossal embarrassment and lost the confidence of their normal electorate – and the UUP ended up “in power” with Sinn Fein in the NI Executive, wouldn’t that form a really unstable and unhealthy assembly, with one of the two leading parties having a such a close link to the UK government?
And expect some changes in the UUP line-up at the next election. Expect Sylvia Hermon to either turn around and voluntarily accept the Conservative whip before the next election, or watch as she completes her eight year stint and allows North Down yet another Member of Parliament.
Update Monday - the official webcast of Saturday morning's session is now online and also embedded below.