It was a terrible result for the UUP, coming 5th, as well as 41,000 votes behind Alliance. Because he hadn’t had time to make his mark as leader the party didn’t place too much direct blame on his shoulders. It also helped him that the DUP also took a substantial hit.
But the party did expect him to gain at the expense of the DUP’s perceived weakness; the fallout from their catastrophic relationship with the Conservatives; the huge unpopularity of the Protocol across unionism; and the internal assault on Arlene Foster. But no gains were made. Instead, he quickly acquired a reputation for ‘car crash’ interviews–particularly with Stephen Nolan – and none of the soaring reputation and popularity of health minister Robin Swann (ironically, the best decision Aiken made in his short career) filtered down to him, or the party, in the form of reflected glory.
In his resignation letter to UUP chairman, Danny Kennedy, Aiken noted (and it would be churlish not to acknowledge his honesty); ‘…it has become clear to me that if we are to achieve the breakthrough in the forthcoming Assembly elections, we will need to drive further ahead. Regrettably, however, I believe I have taken our party as far as it can; to achieve our goals we now need new leadership.’
It is the right decision in the circumstances. A new DUP leader will be in place by next Friday (complete with policy overhaul, a more coherent strategy and renewed media interest) and while the next Assembly election isn’t scheduled until the Spring of 2022, there is a possibility it could come earlier than that. Which is why a new leader needs to be at the helm as soon as possible. Aiken learned the lesson of a leader facing his first election too early, so it is to his credit that he won’t be lumbering his successor with the same problem.
Who will that be? The UUP has only 10 MLAs, 3 of whom (Swann, Nesbitt and Aiken) have been leader. I would be shocked if Swann wanted the role again; and I think it’s unlikely that Nesbitt will want another go at the job. Roy Beggs, first elected in 1998, is the longest serving MLA but has never shown any interest in the job on three previous occasions and certainly isn’t known as a profile-builder. Andy Allen, Rosemary Barton and Alan Chambers are probably not interested.
That leaves three possibilities: John Stewart ( elected for East Antrim in 2017); Robbie Butler (Lagan Valley, 2016) and Doug Beattie (Upper Bann, 2016). Of those three Beattie is easily the best known and he also knows how to land solid blows in debate and interviews; and with both Poots and Donaldson long-experienced, well-practiced political players, Beattie may be best placed to take them on.
But within broader unionism he is viewed as liberal on a range of socio/ethical issues and there may be elements of the UUP who would regard that as a disadvantage. Against that, though, there will be voters and potential voters within unionism – some of whom have drifted to Alliance – who might view a Beattie-led UUP as a voting option again.
Whoever follows Aiken needs an immediate, thought-through answer to one basic question: how do you win back voters from Alliance and the DUP, as well as reaching out to younger, unaligned voters? No other question actually matters at this point.
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