The Conservatives will fight for every seat in the UK, including Northern Ireland, at the next General Election, according to former Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.
Trimble told the conference he hoped the Conservatives would have the help of the UUP at the next election. UUP leader Reg Empey said a cabinet post for the Ulster Unionists was a possibility.
So it seems that the conclusions of the report from the working group set up to examine whether there should be a merger between the Ulster Unionists and the Conservatives, which is due in the autumn, have already been written.
There are three possible ways that this can play out: the Tories could stand in every constituency in Northern Ireland and compete against the UUP, or the UUP could 'stand down' and recommend its voters to vote Tory, or the merger of the two parties could have already come into effect.
If the Tories compete against both the DUP and the UUP (and the TUV?) for votes, then they will be rightly accused of vote-splitting. Plus, there simply aren't enough unionist votes in some constituencies for three or four parties. Either they would hand some seats to nationalists, to the delight of the latter (North Belfast, perhaps, and Upper Bann. South Belfast could become a 'safe' SDLP seat), or they would get a derisory share of the vote, to their own chagrin. Bear in mind that in 2005 the Tories got 0.4% of the overall vote in Northern Ireland in the Westminster election, only a slight increase from their 0.3% in 2001. So, in order to avoid embarrassment (especially if it tarnished a landslide win overall), they will not stand alone.
Would the UUP 'stand down' in favour of the Tories? Not unless a merger was definite, otherwise it would amount to UUP suicide. Don't forget, of course, that Reg Empey thinks that "a cabinet post for the Ulster Unionists was a possibility", which implies that he thinks that there will still be a UUP after the election. Quite why any UUP member would qualify for a cabinet post is a mystery – their only current MP is closer to Labour than the Tories, and there are no obvious talents lurking in the undergrowth. What seats does he think the UUP will win, and how? His comments are probably meaningless.
So the only option remaining is the consummation of the merger. This would, of course, be a 'friendly take-over' rather than a merger of equals. The Tories would simply swallow the UUP whole. This brings the debate back to thee effect it would have on Northern Irish politics.
Would a 'Conservative and Unionist Party' (which is, in any case, the official name of the Tories) attract more votes than the old UUP? If so, whose votes would they be? It is fairly certain that the personnel of the new party would be those of the old UUP, so much of its vote would follow them. But not all. Although Margaret Thatcher established the possibility of being both working class and Tory, she also (in their eyes) sold out the unionists by signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Most working class unionists already vote for the DUP so the Tories have little more to lose there, and Cameron can be presented as unblemished by Thatcherism. So there will be little loss of vote, but will there be any gains? Probably the very small group who voted UKUP in the past (1.7% in 2001, but did not stand in 2005) will be thrilled by the thought of an 'integrationist' party, and some unionists in the Alliance Party will switch allegiance. There will also be a 'bounce' caused by the novelty of the new party, and the spill-over visibility and publicity from its larger campaign in Britain.
But ultimately the Tories will be fishing in the same shrinking pond as the other unionist parties. And there it really is a zero-sum game. A gain for one must be a loss for another, so the DUP will do everything it can to compete. Whether Tory head office will consider Northern Ireland as being a worthy recipient of its publicity budget is doubtful. It will prefer to spend its money on marginal seats in England than on long-shots in Northern Ireland. Since the DUP is not likely to join with the demoralised Labour Party, a costly win over the DUP adds little benefit to the Tories compared with the same money spent in English marginal seats. If the locals (basically the UUP, who are failing badly at present) cannot create their own bounce, then Tory head office will probably write them off to a great extent, and they will sink into electoral oblivion.
So the likely 'new' party will most likely just be the old UUP in new clothing. The Tories may try to impose 'British' candidates in some seats to emphasise their 'national' credentials, but this could back-fire badly. At the end of the day, even unionists do not think Belfast is as British as Finchley, and would react against an imposed outsider. Unless the UUP-Tories can attract a large number of new candidates, they will not look any different to the old tired UUP, and will fare no better.
What is in it for the Tories? They have dipped their toes in Northern Irish electoral waters before, and have been spectacularly unsuccessful. And the UUP is hardly a robust partner. The answer, of course, lies in Scotland. The future of the UK will be made or broken in Scotland – Wales is a barely conscious semi-nation, and Northern Ireland only a semi-detached part of the UK. But if Scotland leaves, there is no UK any more. The Tories have big credibility problems in Scotland, and are often seen as just an 'English' party, but if they can point to an expansion into Northern Ireland, then this allows them to call themselves a 'British' party. All the better if the voters who may vote Tory in Northern Ireland are seen as 'Ulster Scots'. So the UUP is being taken over not because the Tories actually think that this will lead to any additional seats, but cynically to allow the Tories to wrap the Union Jack around them when they contest the election in Scotland. When this need is no longer there, Reg Empey and his little UUP fantasies about sitting in the British cabinet will be consigned to history.