Lord Trimble- ex leader
of the Ulster Unionists
now a Conservative peer
David Trimble's announcement that this morning he has joined the Conservative Party and will take the whip in the Lords is an interesting one. Both for the impact it will have upon the Ulster Unionist Party and for its impact upon the Conservative Party.
Lord Trimble before his peerage was an MP for many years, had led the Ulster Unionists for ten years and had been First Minister of Northern Ireland. Trimble's contribution to the history of modern Northern Ireland cannot be underestimated- he took huge political risks in order to reach out to Sinn Fein. In the end he sacraficed his own party and his own political career- but he did get a Nobel peace prize for his efforts and furthermore he lay the groundwork for the current settlement which sees Ian Paiseley and Gerry Adams sitting down at the same table.
But what does this new move mean for British politics?
Looking at this from a wider perspective the move makes a difference to British politics in two main ways- it makes a difference to British politics in two rather profound ways- firstly it changes the dynamic within the Conservative Party to the benefit of David Cameron- making it slightly more likely that he would win the next general election and making it more likely that he could form a competent cabinet after winning. Secondly though it makes it more difficult for him quixotically in the are of Mr Trimble's greatest competence- Northern Ireland.
Lets come to my first point. As Vino has argued on his blog
the Conservatives have been trying for years to build up a presence in Northern Ireland. There is a space given the demise of the Ulster Unionist for a moderate and fiscally conservative party to gain seats in Northern Ireland. There is space for the Conservatives to win maybe a seat or two, definitely in the devolved assembly, and potentially with some luck at Westminster. David Trimble argued in a Radio 4 interview today that he hoped he would bring the expansion of the mainstream parties into Northern Ireland- he is right that the main parties have never done that as seriously as they should have done it, and hopefully if Northern Irish politics were to become more mainstream they will be less dominated by the issues of sectarians, and more dominated by the economic and social service issues that people are interested in elsewhere.
When Cameron comes to power, he faces a significant problem. With the exception of William Hague and possibly Francis Maude there are very few people in the Conservative Party who have run things and actually done things in government before. People like George Osborne are those for whom the word callow and inexperienced were invented. There are good reasons for this to be a good situation- new faces and new ideas are always popular. Trimble though has actually run things- he therefore gives the Conservative party a figure who has credibility as a possible cabinet member. Cameron is going to be desperate if he does form a government to find individuals like Trimble- in that sense his defection is a godsend to the Conservative Party.
However there is a downside to all of this. Trimble has a reputation in Northern Ireland which could make Cameron's life more difficult when he comes to the affairs of that troubled province. Firstly Trimble is routinely distrusted by the Protestant population, many of whom beleive that he sold them down the river. But the main problem is the second big issue, which is that British governments always try and cast themselves, rightly in my view, as even handed mediators in any conflict between the parties in Northern Ireland. A party that has a former Ulster Unionist leader in its councels will find that more difficult to do when in government and nationalists in Northern Ireland will be more suspicious of the intentions of a Conservative government including Trimble than of a purely Conservative government.
That isn't to say that the Conservatives ought not to have admitted him. Trimble's reentry into British politics will add elements of interest to the next few years- in him the Tories have acquired a substantial figure who if they are wise they will use well. The downsides lie within the province he has left- but the presence of such a big hitter on the Tory side of the aisle will make things even more interesting than they already are in British politics at the moment.