The Tory leadership roadshow is in town and at the Conservative Party shop in the lobby of the Culloden hotel outside Belfast, there no shortage of merchandise. The options include ties, water bottles and mugs branded with “Ready for Rishi” or “Liz for Leader”; there is even a T-shirt with the dates and locations of the “Hustings 2022″ tour printed on the back (you can still catch the band in Manchester, Birmingham, Norwich and London, in case you’re wondering).
The Conservative Party has about 600 members in Northern Ireland; this Wednesday lunchtime, about 250 of them have registered to attend this hustings event in which the two candidates in the leadership race — Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak — will pitch for their votes.
Each of these party members will have the chance to vote for the next leader — and also, therefore, Britain’s next prime minister. Many of them, according to an early show of hands, are still undecided.
Yet for all the enthusiasm in the room at being able to question the candidates directly, each is aware of the reality that they are a tiny proportion of voters — tiny but vocal, local Conservatives would emphasise — and, given Truss’s lead in the polls, are unlikely to make a difference to the overall result.
The fact remains that the audience to be won over — above all for Sunak — is not that in the room, but among Tory members in England; hence, presumably, the failure of either candidate to mention in their speeches the current political crisis at Stormont and the need to restore the powersharing government.
By contrast, it was the first question asked of Liz Truss by a member of the audience, who challenged her directly: “I noticed in your speech you didn’t mention the stalemate at Stormont.”
Truss’s answer — as was Sunak’s when asked a similar question — was, broadly, that “fixing” the Northern Ireland protocol would fix Stormont.
Jayne Doherty from Armagh, who put the question to Sunak, said she had done so because it was “the most pressing question… how are you going to put all these great policies in if the government doesn’t sit? It’s a daily topic of frustration for people in Northern Ireland, so I wanted to hear both of the candidates’ answers to that.”
And what did she think of them? They didn’t understand, she said, that it was just “a lot more complicated… I felt they talked about the protocol and [were] quite naive, that they think fixing the protocol will fix powersharing in Northern Ireland.”
This does not bode well for the autumn, when some heavy lifting will be required from the new prime minister — and, presumably, a new Northern secretary — if Stormont is to be resurrected.
Nor does the way in which they plan to “fix” the protocol by ensuring the passage of controversial legislation in parliament which will allow the UK to unilaterally abandon parts of the protocol.
Sunak also wants to explore further negotiations with the EU while Truss’s promise that she will “unlock the opportunities of Brexit” ignores the opportunities that have come Northern Ireland’s way due to its unique position under the protocol.
Says Irwin Armstrong, a businessman in Ballymena and a former chair of the NI Conservatives: “Fixing the protocol does not necessarily fix the relationship between Northern Ireland and the EU.
“That is our problem — we could have a retrograde step where we actually lose all the benefits we have.”
That said, for those present there was much to be positive about, not least the candidates’ oft-emphasised commitment to the union and Northern Ireland’s place in it, and a pledge from Truss for more resources to help grow the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland and put up more candidates for election.
There was applause when, asked if she would reverse the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, Truss replied: “We are in the United Kingdom and we need our laws to apply right across the United Kingdom, that is what being a union is.”
As the Tory leadership roadshow departs for yet another stop on its tour of the union, one thing is certain: whoever becomes the next prime minister will have plenty more questions to face in the months ahead.