Saturday, December 06, 2008

The New Force ... or The Thing With No Name

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.

David Cameron speaking in Belfast at a Cameron Direct event

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.

David Cameron speaking at a Cameron Direct event in Belfast

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.

What did he do to his thumb?

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.

David Cameron speaking at a Cameron Direct event in Belfast

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?

David Cameron speaking at a Cameron Direct event in Belfast

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).

David Cameron speaking at a Cameron Direct event in Belfast

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.


AM said...

Good post. I wonder why they bother coming over here. There seems not the slightest chance of either they or Labour doing the business. If he wants to do anything - when he gets into government - make Trimble a minister in acknowledgement of the place, mutter a few platitudes and be done with it.

Anonymous said...

AM - You talk about them "coming over" like the Party flies in and out. But all of yesterday's activities were organised by local Conservatives who live and work here in Northern Ireland. Yes we've entered into a partnership with the UUP but the Party is also experiencing an upswing locally because of the Cameron effect. Watch this space.

Timothy Belmont said...

I was in the UUP for over a decade; stopped supporting the Party when the Agreement was signed; so haven't voted for them since 1998.

Now that they are linking to the Conservatives - and times have changed - I'll most likely support them. I was going to vote conservative at the next election, anyway.

I am pleased that the UUP is coming back to its true roots. It was, after all, the Conservative and Unionist Party.


Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Jeffrey - thanks for stopping by and commenting.

I did detect two distinct pieces of rhetoric yesterday. Conservatives NI see the big picture. UUP see a way of punching above their weight by remaining the number 2 unionist party but getting privileged access to the next government. While some UUP politicians and members may share the CNI view, others - probably outside the negotiations - are a lot more dismissive of CNI numbers and their impact on the alliance.

But then it's about voters and not members!

Anonymous said...

It was open to anyone to apply for a the limited places no one was excluded.

Let us see the other party leaders here do the same thing and then judge Cameron's performance.

I think we need more open politics here where there are no scripted questions or answers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Alan - very interesting to hear your thoughts. Great pictures of the main man!

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey Peel and the local Conservatives couldn't dip any lower than their current nadir of support. I reject stage-managed political puppet shows such as yesterday's "Townhall meeting" in favour of transparent policies open to scrutiny and outcome measurement. On education for instance Cameron is a fan of the rebranded comprehensive academy schools, non-selective education and Cameron has abandoned grammar schools since 2007.

His new partner, the UUP, will be subjugated along with all those who would mistakenly vote for the Conservative/UUP "force" into accepting the Etonian's ideas for state education.

PR stunts are just that -stunts.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

@Anonymous - not being representative wasn't a criticism - just an observation.

AM said...

Jeffrey, some time ago I interviewed Julian Robertson just before an election. He more or less told me the same thing you have, a type of watch this space. It didn't happen. There is no mileage in this place for British politicians. The party does fly in and out more out of courtesy simply because the NI appendage does not matter. The Tories are unlikely ever to do well here.

Anonymous said...

UUP 'are a lot more dismissive of CNI numbers and their impact on the alliance.'

When Cameron speaks the media listen - Reg struggled to be heard.

And remember - read the speech - Cameron is basically saying 'I am a Northern Ireland Tory'

DeSelby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DeSelby said...

Really enjoyed the blog,

I'm a supporter of the Fianna Fail movement into Northern Politics and hopefully we'll see that happen at the other side of the economic downturn.
I'm more than happy to see Cameron et al throwing their hat into the ring and hopefully it will result in a major shift in Unionist/nationalist politics in the north over the next 5yrs.

As a Queens Student i can almost guess the faces that were the "teenagers in pinstriped suits". - the same suits always seem to be a few sizes too big as well. Wondering if you noticed that?

Anonymous said...

Was I the only one to notice the saliva dripping down Cameron's chin as he spoke? Was he salivating at the prospect of swallowing the UUP whole? Or perhaps someone was sucking a lemon, or even an Orange in front of him............

Anonymous said...

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?

What are you trying to imply. In the current situation both the DUP and Sinn Fein have a direct 'close' link with the current government. I wouldn't say so. For a start Sinn Fein haven't even taken the Queens oath into Westminster and yet they're treated as if they have, and to be quite frank it seems as if they act in the best interests of ROI.

Moving onto the DUP. Due to the fact that each MP/MLA have 50 million other council positions. So when they go over to Westminster, sign a book, listen for half an hour and bugger off home because they have other commitments. Even if they do vote, they always vote the wrong way in favor of the union so to be honest it is quite pointless.

Hopefully now you realize the defunct scenario that is Northern Irish politics. And how we pay tax to these blithering idiots that do nothing in the interest of Northern Ireland. So I do see a good sign if UUP and Tories got into force together. And hopefully the people of Northern Ireland see the significance of this greater relationship as they will have an input into Westminster and people in Northern Ireland will be allowed to climb higher up the political ladder and become more prominent in UK politics.

If the UUP and Sinn Fein get into government at least we will have one party with close ties to the UK government. Hopefully resulting in normal politics being reinstated into Northern Ireland. So we can see progression and I feel thats what the people of Northern Ireland deserve quite frankly.