The DUP’s future at Westminster might be decided by another party

The leader-in-waiting of the Ulster Unionist Party says he will not cooperate electorally with the DUP - which could have profound consequences for its MPs.

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What’s the most significant thing a unionist politician has said today? Arguably, the answer has nothing to do with the DUP’s annual conference but with another party entirely: the Ulster Unionists. 

Steve Aiken, the only candidate nominated to stand in the UUP’s looming leadership election - scheduled to take place next month - chose this morning to spike the guns of his party’s larger rival with a Belfast Telegraph interview that could make uncomfortable reading for the DUP’s 10 MPs. 

Aiken, a Remainer and leading light of the UUP’s liberal wing, said that the DUP had “blackened the name of unionism”. More notably, he ruled out any electoral cooperation with them whatsoever.

Having been wiped out at Westminster in 2017, and long usurped by the DUP as unionism’s main electoral force, there is little chance of the UUP supplanting Arlene Foster’s party under Aiken’s leadership - or anything like it. At most, they might win back the two MPs they lost at the last election.

But that isn’t to say the strategic shift - from prioritising unionism’s common interests in elections to seeking partisan advantage over the DUP whatever the circumstances - might not have profound consequences.

In one constituency in particular it might prove decisive. Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, won a slender majority of just 2,081 over Sinn Féin’s John Finucane in North Belfast in 2017. The UUP have not stood against Dodds since 2010, when they won nearly 3,000 votes.

Much has changed since then, not least the UUP’s fortunes. But Sinn Féin’s vote is only going up, and the entry of a UUP candidate into the field is likely to harm one person more than anyone else: Dodds.

Every speech by a DUP MP today emphasised, to one degree or another, the clout and influence its parliamentary party has wielded since 2017. Dodds, as the group’s leader, has been the author of much of its success - if you want to call it that.

If Aiken stays true to his word and runs a UUP candidate in all 18 of Northern Ireland’s constituencies, then the DUP could end up diminished in the next parliament - not only in raw numbers, but in leadership. Of the two leaders, losing Dodds could arguably hurt them more. Or, more significantly, it might result in subtle but significant changes to their parliamentary strategy.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.