Hermon had not been a common attendee at UUP conferences in recent years, and some UUP members used this to excuse her absence on Saturday. But today's News Letter quotes her as saying that:
"I've been made deeply unhappy by my party's decision to align itself
with the Tories.
It was a decision made without any prior consultation with me. My views about it are already well known.
Whilst I am truly sorry to have missed seeing many of my Ulster Unionist friends at yesterday's conference, I simply couldn't go along and pretend to endorse the New Force arrangements."
This puts Hermon in direct opposition to her own party, and makes her selection as a UUP candidate next year very much in doubt. All candidates in the 'UCUNF' alliance must be jointly agreed by the leaders of the UUP and the Tories.
"In accordance with the agreement reached between both parties, selections will run on a twin-track process. Both the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionist Party will embark on procedures, in accordance with their own rules of selection, which will result in all Conservative and Ulster Unionist associations presenting a shortlist of one candidate each for consideration. The shortlist of candidates will be subject to the agreement of both Party Leaders.
All successful candidates at this stage will be considered by the Joint Committee, which will determine the final list of the preferred candidates.
Special meetings of the Ulster Unionist Executive and the Northern Ireland Conservative Area Council will then ratify all candidates."
There is very little chance that the Tories will give their agreement to someone who opposes them.
So Hermon faces three options:
1. To not put her name forward as the UUP candidate for North Down,
2. To put her name forward, as the sitting MP, and challenge her party, and the Tories, to deselect her,
3. To run as an independent.
If she opts or the first option – effectively retirement from Westminster – it remains to be seen whether the UUP would put up another credible candidate, or if they would cede the UCUNF candidacy to the opportunist Parsley. If they put forward a B-list candidate, and Parsley became the 'joint' candidate, there is a strong possibility of the DUP taking the seat. In 2007 the DUP outpolled the UUP in the seat in the Assembly elections, though thanks to the incumbency effect Hermon polled higher than the DUP in the last Westminster election (2005). Without her personal vote, the UUP vote – even if the Tories 2.8% is added to it – falls well short of the DUP. The UCUNF may be hoping that Parsley can bring with him the Alliance party's 10% of the North Down vote. This may be wishful thinking. Deserters and turncoats rarely retain the affections of those they left behind. If the Alliance party stand a candidate of their own, he or she may well retain their vote, leaving Parsley struggling for votes from resentful Hermon-supporters and angry Alliance voters.
Option 2 is clearly excluded – Hermon could not be selected by 'both party leaders' in UCUNF, barring an amazing turn-around and public contrition.
But Option 3 remains possible – that Hermon might stand on her principles and stand as an Independent candidate. North Down has a history of electing mavericks, and the constituency is notoriously fluid. Hermon herself is popular and has made few enemies – apart from her own party and the Tories, of course! If she stood as an independent, she could count on the votes of many UUP members, many Alliance supporters, and many supporters of minor parties – even from SDLP supporters.
An imposed Tory candidate – especially one who stood so recently as a 'non-unionist' Alliance Party candidate in the European Parliament elections – would alienate many UUP voters. But many other voters – from a variety of parties – would relish the chance to show that the UCUNF experiment is a failure, and there would be no better way to do it than voting for an independent Hermon.
Whether the coalition of support that Hermon could count on would be greater than that that the DUP could muster is hard to say, and the DUP's support would depend very much on whether or not the TUV stand in the constituency.
But if the TUV did stand, thus cutting into the DUP's support, there is a very good chance that Hermon could retain the seat, even against a UCUNF candidate.
A lot is riding on this seat, as far as the UCUNF is concerned. It is the only seat held by the UUP, and thus to lose it would be embarrassing – especially if the UCUNF fails to win any others. To gain seats elsewhere and retain North Down would be viewed by UCUNF as a great victory, but to gain seats elsewhere and lose North Down only a partial victory. The UCUNF strategists must be hoping that Hermon decides to retire, and that the TUV decide to contest North Down. Otherwise the best they can hope for is a partial victory ... or humiliation.