I was wrong--or at least premature--when I said in my last post that the Ulster Unionist Party leadership contest would be a three-man race involving Danny Kennedy, Mike Nesbitt, and John McCallister. Kennedy announced on Friday that he would not be filing nomination papers for the position and would instead be backing Mike Nesbitt. Nominations for the race closed yesterday with only McCallister and Nesbitt having filed. The former UTV anchor/presenter has emerged as the establishment choice for the leadership with backing by three out of four UUP lairds (UUP members elevated to the House of Lords) including former liberal faction leader Ken Maginnis, now Lord Maginnis, and former Good Friday Agreement skeptic John Taylor, now Lord Kilclooney. Because former party leader David Trimble is now a Conservative peer, he is not among the four lairds. Nesbitt has also been endorsed by the Belfast Telegraph, the paper of the unionist establishment.
Kennedy's main aim was to protect his ministerial position in the Executive, which was threatened by McCallister's call for the UUP to form the opposition. Kennedy is not a personality who relishes confrontation and so was happy to make an implicit deal with Nesbitt, after having been approached by a number of party figures, under which he will keep his ministry and Nesbitt will get the leadership. Had Kennedy remained in the race he would have risked splitting the non-liberal vote within the party and throwing the election to McCallister and thereby losing his ministerial position in the long run.
This is reminiscent of the 1825 "corrupt bargain" in which Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams made an implicit but unwritten bargain. Both despised Andrew Jackson--whose father had emigrated from Ulster shortly before Jackson was born, the third rival in a four-man presidential contest at a point when the United States effectively had a single political party. Because no single candidate had a majority of electoral votes the election went to the House of Representatives to decide the election with each state's House delegation casting a single vote. Clay, who had come in fourth behind Jackson and Adams and a Georgia Treasury secretary was eliminated from consideration. So Clay threw his considerable support in the House behind Adams who won the presidency even though he had received fewer popular and electoral votes than Jackson. Adams rewarded Clay by appointing him as his secretary of state, which in the early nineteenth century was considered to be the stepping stone to the presidency. Jackson made a major issue of this "corrupt bargain" in the 1828 presidential election that laid the foundation for America's two-party system. Jackson won and became one of the great presidents of American history while Adams entered into a second career in the House during which he opposed slavery from 1835 until his death in early 1848.
As I indicated in my previous post, liberals do not generally win UUP leadership elections. There have only been two UUP leaders who could be classified as liberals: Ken Andrews from 1940 to 1943 and Terence O'Neill from 1963 to 1969. Both were before the trauma of The Troubles and the competition with the DUP. In January 1974 when UUP leader Brian Faulkner adopted an uncharacteristic liberal persona by supporting power sharing with the nationalist SDLP party he was forced out of the leadership and forced to resign from the party.
The leadership election will be on March 31 in an as yet unnamed Belfast hotel.