Conservative leadership contest: NI Tories' fear of betrayal

lEADERSHIP CONTEST
Image caption Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson faced NI Conservatives in the north Down's Culloden Hotel on Tuesday

Fear of betrayal is a common theme in the history of Northern Ireland politics.

Traditionally it is associated with unionists concerned that Westminster might be about to sell them out in order to do a deal with Dublin.

But the Northern Ireland Conservative hustings provided another angle to that old "suspicious lover" narrative.

With about only 500 members and no elected representatives, the local Tories aren't exactly big players in the regional political scene.

In the last European and council elections they garnered just 662 and 1,364 votes.

So they probably felt flattered by all the attention that went with a visit by two potential prime ministers.

But even as Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt were heading towards the Culloden Hotel on North Down's "Gold Coast", the fear mounted amongst local activists that they might be about to be used and abused.

Image caption Jeremy Hunt defended the make-up of his proposed Brexit negotiating team

Were the two candidates going to butter them up for a couple of hours, only to spurn them for the attractions of another party just down the road at Stormont?

One activist complained that if this was the case, it would be better to call the whole thing off.

That didn't happen. But Mr Hunt was asked why his proposed Brexit negotiating team included the Scottish and Welsh Conservatives and the DUP, rather than the Northern Ireland Tories.

And Boris Johnson was challenged on why he had been the guest of honour at Arlene Foster's most recent annual party conference.

Both candidates shrugged off the criticism. Mr Hunt said his negotiating team reflected the parliamentary arithmetic.

Mr Johnson pointed out he had previously addressed the Tories in Bangor in North Down. And if he didn't keep the DUP on side then where would the country be?

He answered his own question by telling the local Tories that the alternative was Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street, a prime minister who backs a United Ireland and - in Mr Johnson's words - was soft on the IRA.

Image caption Boris Johnson said the DUP had to be kept on side

The grassroots appeared mollified - even the activist who had earlier talked of pulling the event said the answers seemed fair enough.

However, those fears of betrayal were well founded.

Within minutes of leaving the hustings, the front-runner was being given a guided tour around Stormont by none other than the DUP leader Arlene Foster.

Unlike the NI Tories, she might not have 500 votes in the leadership contest. But what the DUP leader can offer is 10 MPs, without which the new Conservative leader would not be able to call himself a prime minister.

The DUP said the pictures of Mrs Foster shepherding Mr Johnson around the under-utilised Stormont assembly building doesn't mean they are tilting towards the favourite.

The party's deputy leader Nigel Dodds apparently held a meeting with Mr Hunt the previous evening at Westminster.

The DUP's official position remains one of neutrality.

But who would bet against those pictures of Mr Johnson and Mrs Foster taking in the Stormont views becoming extremely useful when their two parties are discussing a renewal of their parliamentary deal later this summer?