Northern Ireland

UUP and the Tories - how brothers became cousins

A year ago, local Conservatives and Ulster Unionists believed their electoral alliance would reap dividends.

However, the project is now dead after they failed to win a seat in the General Election.

Political reporter Stephen Walker examines the mood at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.

Image caption New UUP leader Tom Elliot made clear the relationship with the Tories would change during the leadership campaign

As he waited to speak at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference Sir Reg Empey may have wondered how different his life would have been had he become an MP.

Last May, he tried to unseat the DUP MP for South Antrim Willie McCrea.

It was seen as a last ditch attempt to win at least one parliamentary seat for the Conservatives and Unionists.

His attempt failed and with it went the future of the UCUNF project.

As Sir Reg spoke to Conservative activists and business people a few hundred yards away, the Conservative leader David Cameron was preparing to meet Tom Elliot in a Birmingham hotel.

Had things gone better for Sir Reg Empey it was the meeting he should have been at.

Sir Reg Empey's successor, Tom Elliot, made it clear during his campaign for the Ulster Unionist leadership that the alliance with the Tories would not continue as before.

Many in both parties share the new leader's analysis, but differ on why it failed to produce any MPs.

Blame game

Conservatives and Ulster Unionists remain friendly and that is evident in fringe meetings in Birmingham.

They share common aims and values but there is a blame game still going on some five months after the general election.

Conservatives feel aggrieved that the process of selecting joint candidates took too long.

Privately, they say UUP officials dragged their feet and wasted valuable time.

In turn, Ulster Unionists think the process of candidate selection was too cumbersome and the message on the doorstep was confusing.

Image caption The relationship between David Cameron's Conservatives and Sir Reg Empey's UUP deteroriated after the election

Some UUP members felt that local Conservatives had too big an influence.

Others blame media coverage of 'Tory cuts' as a barrier to people voting for UCUNF.

Family

In Birmingham it is clear the relationship is changing.

UUP members and Conservatives will remain part of the unionist family.

However, instead of being brothers in arms they are now a little like distant cousins. Happy to be related but they just want to do things their own way.

Tom Elliot made that approach clear in his meeting with David Cameron.

The new UUP leader remarked afterwards that the alliance was 'not acceptable in its current form'.

What it could mean is that both parties maintain a working relationship and discuss ideas of interest but it is apparent the era of joint candidates is over.

It is all in stark contrast to the optimism that was obvious in the autumn of 2009.

At last year's Conservative Conference I met UUP and Tory activists from Northern Ireland.

I remember talking to prospective UCUNF candidates who were bubbling with enthusiasm.

They were people from all kinds of backgrounds. Their number included women and people new to politics. They were new candidates for new times.

They believed they were about to break the political mould by capturing seats back from the DUP.

Twelve months on, the reality is very different. They are delighted that the Conservatives are in power but at a local level feel disappointed.

Looking back, activists on both sides know mistakes were made and they now have to recapture lost ground.

Never mind a week being a long time in politics - for some, the last year must seem like an eternity.