Say what you like about Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionists, he is not short of ideas for what direction the party should take. The problem is that his ideas are no longer coherent and nobody knows what he is going to come up with next. Last week Empey left the Conservative party, with which he has been conducting a courtship since the summer, scratching its head in bewilderment.
The week opened with the the Sunday Times' revelation that Lady Hermon, the UUP's only sitting MP, would not take the Tory whip because she supported Gordon Brown. Then news broke that Empey had held a meeting with Jim Allister's Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and was proposing a voting pact between all unionist parties at the European election. That idea will please neither Hermon nor the Tories, and has attracted contempt from the other parties who portrayed the UUP as rudderless and desperate.
Since it was founded in 1971, the DUP has specialised in lambasting UUP leaders as compromisers and sell outs. Last week Empey set a new standard, provoking a DUP politician denounced him for flirting with extremism.
"One day Sir Reg is portraying himself as the champion of moderate, secular unionism," Edwin Poots, a DUP MLA. "The next he is sidling up to the far right fringe of the political spectrum in the form of the TUV." Poots also caricatured Empey as "the runaway bride" because of the number of political alliances he has proposed and withdrawn from.
Remember the link up with the late David Ervine, of the Progressive Unionist Party, to get an extra ministry at Stormont? That collapsed, to be followed by an alliance of the centre parties which saw UUP and SDLP ministers co-operating very effectively to maximise their influence in the executive. It may even have brought some transfers from the SDLP in elections.
Then there was the proposal to link up with the Tories to bring a new, civic unionism to Northern Ireland and to offer local MPs and peers seats in a future Conservative government. Now there is the new voting pact agreed with the TUV. The aim, according to an agreed statement between Empey and Allister, is to ensure two unionist MEPs next June. "This should be the overriding priority of all unionists in respect of this election" Empey said. "It is only attainable by full utilisation of transfers between the unionist candidates."
He is now proposing to turn the European election into a border referendum. The UUP would sink its differences with the DUP and TUV, which opposes both the Good Friday and St Andrew's Agreements, solely in the interests of keeping nationalists out of Strasbourg.
The province's current European representatives are Allister, Bairbre de Brun of Sinn Féin and Jim Nicholson of the UUP, who came in last with the help of the DUP and some SDLP transfers. Next time, the DUP will be fielding a candidate against Allister, so it is mathematically possible that the three unionists will spread the vote so evenly between them that two nationalists will be elected.
The problem for Empey is that, in calling for a tribal headcount in an attempt to protect Nicholson, he is cutting across his negotiations with Davud Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, and taking the Rories somewhere they definitely don't want to go. Cameron and Empey unveiled a joint vision of a non sectarian, open form of unionism in an article they co-authored in the Dáily Telegraph on July 24. "The issues that most concern people are not of a narrow sectarian nature" they wrote. "Many people are becoming exasperated by local politicians concentrating on what appear to be exclusively parochial issues. [We] want the support of all those who share our joint agenda and common vision, regardless of their religion, background, or whatever part of the UK they happen to reside in."
The two leaders went on to pledge their support for "the devolution settlement" at Stormont which Alister opposes.
Senior Tories, who thought this was the way things would proceed, are now worried that they will be sucked into Northern Ireland's sectarian quagmire. Until last week it had seemed a simple matter to support Nicholson, who is already a member of the Tories' European Democrat group in the European parliament. The Tories were prepared to pour in money and resources into his campaign, as well as sending in Cameron and other senior figures to raise the MEP's profile but they don't want to be committed to some vote sharing agenda with other parties.
One senior Conservative said "we are very enthusiastic to have Jim Nicholson, who is a Conservative, but we would think it much wiser to allow the judgement of the voters to decide to whom they give their second preferences. We as a party wouldn't tell them."
In any case, the idea that electing two unionists will make the union more secure is specious. The European parliament has no control over the existence or non existence of the border. Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, that issue can only be decided by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum.
The Tories are effectively being asked to participate in a transfer pact based openly on the rivalry between the unionist and nationalist communities. That is precisely what they thought they had avoided when, on the urging of David Trimble, they agreed the July article with Empey.
The concern is that it may not even stop at Europe. Some senior Ulster Unionists, like David Burnside, have suggested a voting pact with the DUP at Westminster too. The aim would be to take South Belfast off the SDLP and Fermanagh & South Tyrone from Sinn Féin, by fielding only one unionist candidate in each of these constituencies. This risks making any future Conservative government look hopelessly partisan.
There appeared to be no visible downside to a link with the UUP, but now the problems it could bring are obvious. Since Hermon's declaration of support for Labour, the incentives in favour of doing a deal are disappearing.
Empey, normally the most reasonable of men and a thoughtful politician, is in a difficult and unenviable position. When he was elected leader of the UUP, the 13th the party has had, he inherited an organisation which had ruled Northern Ireland for much of its history but was in dire straits. For the first time since partition, it was no longer the largest party in Northern Ireland, but a minority voice. Several of his leading members and back room staff had jumped ship to the DUP; many voters had followed them. Financial donations were down.
Climbing back from that position was never going to be easy and the UUP's chaotic, decentralised structures made it all but impossible for Empey to impose a strategy. The structures have been tackled but he has been unable to inspire his followers with a coherent vision of how best to proceed or even what direction to take.
In its search for the support of outside political groups, ranging from the SDLP through the TUV to the Tories, the UUP is looking like an increasingly desperate and unreliable partner. Yet it has an extensive organisation as well as many able members and elected representatives.
There is plenty in the UUP to be built upon but that cannot be done without radical surgery or without offending vested interests. Recreating the UUP would need the determination and ruthlessness shown by Tony Blair when he crafted new Labour and by David Cameron when he breathed new life into the Tory party.