Mike Nesbitt's final throw of the dice didn't pay off

By Gareth Gordon
BBC News NI Political Correspondent

  • Published
mike Nesbitt hugs someone while stepping downImage source, pacemaker
Image caption,
Nesbitt has 'paid the price' in the 2017 Assembly election

Mike Nesbitt became Ulster Unionist leader nearly five years ago saying: "I want this party to wake up with a sense of purpose."

Tomorrow its members will wake up wondering who on earth is going to follow the former TV broadcaster into a job which is fast becoming mission impossible.

In the first Assembly election of 1998 the party, under David Trimble, won 28 seats.

Nineteen years on it is scrapping to stay ahead of the Alliance Party.

And the questions about why it needs to exist at all will only get louder.

Mike Nesbitt offered communication skills and a modernising liberal agenda to set the party apart from the DUP.

But he lost other modernisers like John McCallister when he entered into an electoral pact with the DUP.

Image source, pacemaker

And he was increasingly distrusted by the more traditional wing who even privately criticised him for being too hard on the DUP leader Arlene Foster.

All the communication skills in the world were wasted on a membership which isn't sure exactly what it wants the party to be and seems too comfortable with its rapidly diminishing status.

His final throw of the dice - a public declaration that he would be giving his second preference in this Assembly election to the SDLP - was met with widespread dismay in the ranks and glee in the DUP which used the issue to distract attention from its own problems over the renewable heating incentive scheme.

A decent result in an election which seemed perfectly timed to allow the party to claw back some lost ground to the DUP might have saved the day.

But the opposite has happened and now Mike Nesbitt has paid the price.