The mere fact that a Conservative leadership race is taking place in Northern Ireland is enough to raise eyebrows among Conservative Party members elsewhere, gazing across the Irish Sea at a homegrown party believed to number just a few hundred .
But few are likely to miss a moment in the sun for Northern Ireland’s Tories, who have long faced an uphill struggle. A 2017 Stormont candidate secured just 27 first-preference votes, languishing last behind a Christian campaigner who wanted to criminalize adultery.
For Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, however, their appearance in Belfast is fraught with risk, party watchers and insiders agree, with the potential for a number of banana peels to slip – to be questioned about the Northern Ireland protocol and government unrest “legacy” plans to be asked about basic historical details.
“The Northern Ireland Conservatives are a well-meaning group of people, including people who have wanted to chart a political course beyond orange and green, but they have also been really divided and factional. There has always been a Popular Front for the Liberation of Judea aspect,” said a former Conservative adviser who worked in Northern Ireland.
“So for applicants it will be high risk, as well as annoying in terms of having [to] devote resources, but it will be like Christmas for the local party, many of which feel neglected and forgotten.
After years of often not even being able to vote for a Conservative candidate – the party ran 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 represents a tiny fraction of the population of the UK.
Ahead of Wednesday and Tuesday’s hustings in Perth – two opportunities for candidates to portray themselves as defenders of a union in peril – Truss described herself as a “child of the union”, although she drew ridicule for his Sherlock Holmes-like conclusion that Sinn Féin was trying to “drive a wedge” between Northern Ireland and Britain.
Sunak meanwhile promised Northern Ireland would be at the heart of his plan to ‘restore confidence, rebuild our economy and unite our great nation’ and promised he would fix the protocol, highlighting what he has described as 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 give ministers the power to delete parts of the post-Brexit deal between the UK and the EU.
“I think there’s a danger for Sunak, depending on who ends up questioning him, that he’s being asked a question that he’s managed to avoid answering so far, which is, ‘OK, so the Protocol Bill comes into force. What are you doing with this? What’s your plan to fix the border? He does not have it.
Others are less convinced, with the former Tory adviser suggesting Tories in Northern Ireland won’t necessarily be won over by Truss’ red, white and blue bluster.
“Protocol is also something that affects businesses and we are talking about people who live in Northern Ireland and are in business. They are also – compared to other trade unionists in Northern Ireland – people who tend to be more liberal, which could tilt some towards the right-wing positions taken by Truss.
As well as vying for a few hundred votes from Conservative Northern Ireland members, there’s the added fact that Truss and Sunak will still be performing in front of the wider audience of 160,000 members.
Hill adds, “Members won’t necessarily tune in, but they’ll pick up on what’s covered. There are also Tory MPs, many of whom have become latter-day trade unionists after initially backing the protocol. They will look for ways to underline their own pro-union credentials and will want to hear what is being said.