The Conservative Party look set to fail in their determination to stand a candidate in every constituency in the UK, as their allies in Northern Ireland have done a deal with a rival party.
The Tories had formed an alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), enabling candidates in Northern Ireland to stand as “Conservative and Unionist”. But the UUP have withdrawn their candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone after agreeing with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to back a single unionist candidate for the seat.
Rodney Connor will now contest the seat with the backing of both the UUP and the DUP, who hope the deal will unseat the Sinn Fein MP, Michelle Gildernew.
Tom Elliott, who was planning to be the Conservative and Unionist candidate, said that he was “very pleased” with the arrangement. The DUP's Arlene Foster has also withdrawn, offering “unqualified support” to the joint candidate.
It is as yet unclear whether the Tory Party will endorse Connor. Although Elliott announced his withdrawal last week, the Conservative Party website is still (today, 13 April) listing him as their candidate.
Connor said, “While if elected, I would sit as an independent, I am prepared to accept the Conservative Party whip”. But he added, “On matters affecting Northern Ireland I shall vote on the basis of what I believe is in the best interests of the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone”.
The situation is complicated because the DUP has heavily attacked both the Conservative and Labour parties over their plans for public spending cuts. In contrast, the UUP's economic policies are in many ways similar to those of the Tories.
The DUP leader, Peter Robinson, who is also Northern Ireland's First Minister, said last week that “Northern Ireland's emergence from recession will be reversed and we will be plunged deeper into unemployment, job losses and decline if we impose massive cuts in public expenditure”. Robinson said that he would welcome a hung parliament, as it would allow the DUP to use its influence to protect Northern Ireland's economy.
But the UUP leader, Reg Empey, insisted that, “The DUP's entire election strategy at this election is to campaign for political and economic instability across the United Kingdom and hold the government at Westminster to ransom. This is what a hung Parliament would mean.”
The complexity of the ballot in Fermanagh and South Tyrone highlights what many consider to be the absurdity of the first-past-the-post electoral system, by which the candidate with the highest number of votes wins, even if the majority of people have voted against him/her.
Michelle Gildernew won the seat for Sinn Fein in 2005, with a majority of just over 4,500 over the DUP. Both the unionist and nationalist votes were split on that occasion. The nationalist vote will remain split, with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) insisting that they will contest the seat.