Things seem to be going from bad to worse for Jim Nicholson and the UUP.
Firstly, in the middle of Nicholson's campaign for the European Parliament election his party's sole MP, Sylvia Hermon, made it clear that she was opposed to the UUP's partnership with the English Tories, and would not stand under the UCUNF banner – thereby effectively distancing herself from both the UCUNF project and from Nicholson. Her timing was such that it can only be seen as a vote of no confidence in the Tory link-up, and, as a relatively popular woman, especially amongst the civic unionist wing of the UUP, such an anti-endorsement can only cost Nicholson votes.
Then, several of Nicholson's Euro-colleagues, Tory MEPs Dan Hannan and Roger Helmer, both admittedly on the right wing of the Conservative Party, effectively endorsed Nicholson's rival, Jim Allister. Although both prefaced their endorsement of Allister with polite praise for Nicholson, the very fact that they were effusive about a clear UCUNF rival, rather than dismissive as one ought to be in a closely fought election, spoke volumes. Helmer was careful to stress that he was not endorsing Allister over Jim Nicholson and that if he were voting he would give Allister his second preference vote after Nicholson. But a nod is as good as a wink to a blind man.
And on 18 May it was reported that the UDA's north Belfast leader John Bunting had been spotted erecting Nicholson’s election posters. A UUP spokesman denied the party had received support from loyalist paramilitaries; “We met the UPRG recently and they raised concerns that our association with the Conservative Party would lead to us abandoning working-class communities. Clearly the UDA has not endorsed the UUP and neither have we endorsed the UDA,” he said – though the evidence seems to be that the UDA is very much endorsing Nicholson. What Nicholson's Tory friends have to say about receiving support from a senior member of an illegal sectarian terrorist gang is, as yet, unclear. But at the very least one can now be certain that the UUP is not "for all of us", or even that "decent people" vote UUP.
Another huge embarrassment for Nicholson came a day later, when the chairman of the UUP in North Down, Mark Brooks, publicly defected to the DUP. It was bad news for the UUP that he did so, but in the middle of an election campaign it must have hurt badly. Amongst his motives, Brooks said he had been unhappy for some time within the UUP, especially over moves to form an electoral pact with the Conservatives. Ouch … this was the big feather in Nicholson's cap! To add insult to injury, Brooks offered his backing for DUP candidate Diane Dodds in next month’s European election.
Finally (for the time being), Nicholson's new friends in the Tory party have upset the carefully constructed unionist tribal front by declaring that, in the Westminster elections that must come within 12 months, they will not agree to any pacts with the DUP in order to try to re-gain the seats in South Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Cameron said there was "no chance" of the joint UUP-Conservative alliance standing aside in either Fermanagh and South Tyrone or South Belfast. While South Belfast certainly hurt the UUP, it was, after all, only won by the SDLP – Fermanagh and South Tyrone, though, is a different story. A seat with a slight nationalist majority, it was nonetheless held from 1983 to 2001 by the UUP, thanks to a unionist pact and a split nationalist vote. More than anything else, though, Fermanagh and South Tyrone was Bobby Sands seat, and even though a generation has passed, the bitter hatreds of rural Northern Ireland continue to fester in the constituency. Stealing the seat back from Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew through a new unionist voting pact would be greeted by unionists all over Northern Ireland as a huge triumph. That the leader of the English Tories has, in a rather blasé manner – and in the middle of an election campaign – effectively announced that such a tribal triumph is likely to be denied, will anger many unionists, and this will, of course, reduce Nicholson's vote and the number of transfers he might receive. And he will need those transfers if he has any chance of being re-elected.
So poor Nicholson must soldier on, assailed from the civic wing of unionism, from the tribal wing of unionism, and even from his friends in the Tory party. The hill he has to climb on June 4 seems to just get higher and steeper every day. If he clings on to the third seat he will be a very lucky man, but every day the chances that he will fail grow a little more.
As further proof of Nicholson's difficulties, the bookies odds on him topping the poll have lengthened from 10/1 a month ago to 12/1 now. The odds offered on both of Nicholson's rivals for that third Euro-seat, Allister of the TUV and Maginness of the SDLP, have remained unchanged, though still longer than those of Nicholson. The bookies estimate of Allister's likely vote, though, has increased significantly. If some of those votes are ex-UUP voters who fail to transfer back to Nicholson, he could be in trouble.