The mere fact that a Tory leadership is being held in Northern Ireland is enough to raise the eyebrows of Conservative party members elsewhere, who look across the Irish Sea to a local party believed to be be a few hundred.
But few are likely to begrudge a moment in the sun for Northern Ireland’s conservatives, who have long endured an uphill battle. A Stormont candidate received only 27 first preference votes in 2017 and was the last to languish behind a Christian activist who wanted to criminalize adultery.
For Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, however, their Belfast appearance is fraught with risks, party observers and insiders agree, with the potential for any number of banana peels to slip on – from being questioned about Northern Ireland’s protocol and the problems of the “legacy” government plans to be asked about basic historical details.
“Conservatives in Northern Ireland are a group of well-meaning people, including those who wanted to chart a political course beyond orange and green, but they are also really divided and grouped. There has always been an aspect of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea,” said a former Conservative adviser who worked in Northern Ireland.
“So for the candidates it will be a high risk, but also annoying in terms of having [to] resources, but it will be like Christmas for the local party, many of whom feel neglected and forgotten.”
After years of often not even being able to vote for a Tory candidate – the party stood in just four Northern Ireland constituencies in the last general election – every member now has an actual vote for the next prime minister in what is an electorate that is a tiny fraction of the British population.
Before Wednesday’s and Tuesday’s looting in Perth — both opportunities for the candidates to portray themselves as defenders of an endangered union — Truss described herself as a “child of the union”, though she was ridiculed for her Sherlock Holmes-like conclusion that Sinn Féin attempted to “drive a wedge” between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Sunak, meanwhile, has pledged that Northern Ireland would be at the center of his plan to “restore confidence, rebuild our economy and unite our great nation” and promised that he would fix the protocol, focusing on what he described his record as “an experienced international negotiator”. .
For Henry Hill, deputy editor of Conservative Home, Sunak is the candidate most to fear from Belfast, given reports that as chancellor he had opposed the protocol bill, which would empower ministers to share the post-Brexit deal between the UK and the EU.
“I think there is a danger for Sunak, depending on who finally questions him, that he will be asked a question that he has managed to answer so far, which is, ‘OK, so the protocol law becomes law. What are you doing with it? What do you plan to fix the border?’ He has none.”
Others are less convinced, with the former Tory adviser suggesting that the Northern Ireland Tories will not necessarily be won by Truss’ red, white and blue blunder.
“The protocol is also something that affects business and we are talking about people living and doing business in Northern Ireland. They are also – compared to other trade unionists in Northern Ireland – people who are generally more liberal, perhaps leading some to disengage from the right-wing stance Truss takes.”
Aside from competing for a few hundred votes from Tory members in Northern Ireland, there’s the added fact that Truss and Sunak will still be playing for the wider audience of the 160,000 members.
Hill adds: “The members don’t necessarily tune in, but they will pick up on what’s covered. There are also Conservative MPs, including many who have become trade unionists in recent days after originally backing the protocol. They will look for ways to underline their own pro-union credentials and will want to hear what is being said.”