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Good-bye Sir Reg, hello whooooooooooo?

Martina Purdy Martina Purdy | 10:53 UK time, Friday, 6 August 2010

With Reg Empey now set to formally resign as UUP leader, and a contest pencilled in for September 24th, the rumour mill is going into over-drive about who might stand. (Update at 1.45pm. Latest from UUP is that the 22nd of September is now more likely.)

And in the interests of killing off wild speculation, I've been on the phone to some of the names being bandied about.

First of all, the facts. So far only Tom Elliott, the Fermanagh South Tyrone MLA, has declared. Basil McCrea, MLA for Lagan Valley, is expected to enter the race in the next few weeks. It's thought nominations close on September 3rd.

These two are quite a contrast for members. Mr Elliott hails from the Orange, traditional wing of the UUP while is Mr McCrea would be viewed as a liberal moderniser.

Mr Elliott is considered to be the favourite but no one is quite sure how Mr McCrea might do in a one-person one-vote contest. And even his detractors say he shouldn't be under-estimated.

There are thought to be around 2,000 members eligible to vote, but expect a row over voting. There are whispers that questions are being asked about membership forms. How many of these UUP members have actually filled in forms? Or is it that they have simply given a donation and been put down as members? Is a membership card that carries no picture enough to get you a ballot?

It's also been mentioned to me that there is much hand-wringing going on about what might happen if either Mr McCrea or Mr Elliott get the leadership. Will it split the party. Can either of these MLas truly unite the party? Can anybody? The DUP have issued a statement saying that Sir Reg's departure is an opportunity for unionist unity.

Now to the speculation about other candidates. Firstly, Jim Nicholson's name has been mentioned Has he been approached? "First I have heard of it," the UUP MEP told me this morning. He quickly added that he is on record as saying that he does not believe it is possible to lead the party from Europe.

Secondly, Alan McFarland, the North Down MLA who quit the UUP earlier this year over the link-up with the Conservatives. Could Mr McFarland come back and then seize the leadership? I spoke to him too. He has no interest in returning to the UUP never mind seeking to lead it.

Thirdly, Tim Lemon, the member who stood against David Campbell for chairmanship of the party. I haven't spoken him, but it is understood from one-source that he is not intending to stand.

So there you have it.

And if that's not enough for the UUP to worry about, MLAs are facing selection contests in the coming weeks.


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