09/12/2002

Trimble fends off Tory ambition speculation

Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble has rebuffed suggestions that he is eyeing up the leadership of the Conservative Party and spoken of his desire to see closer links between the Tories and his party.

In an interview with Radio 4's Today Programme, Mr Trimble said that talks are ongoing between the two parties, but whether that would result in merger, alliance, leadership bid, or simply an article of understanding, he would not confirm.

He said: "I want to see Ulster Unionism at the heart of British politics. I don't see any justification for our being excluded from national politics, which in many respects we are.

"Yes, I have talked to the Conservatives, I have done that on a number of occasions. We do work together, we work very closely together for example in Europe, and we consider from time to time what we can do here within the UK."

On the prospect of Unionist MPs stepping up to the Shadow Cabinet, Mr Trimble said: "That is a huge jump, and whether a jump like that will ever occur is simply a matter for speculation."

On the wider goal of a Tory leadership move, Mr Trimble said: "I am the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, that is a very onerous job in itself, and it gives me some insight into the problems that people have as leaders of other parties. I have no desire, no intention of taking on an even bigger task, I have enough problems of my own."

Despite the coy denials, the speculation has placed David Trimble in the national headlines.

The Conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph gives the idea of Tory-UUP alignment its support. The paper's leader writer describes a compact as a "tempting prospect" adding that "both the UUP and the Tories stand to gain politically".

The paper views Mr Trimble as "one of the few small-c conservatives in the United Kingdom with moral authority", and he could provide current leader Ian Duncan Smith with "heavyweight" support.

The news is a welcome buffer for the beleaguered Duncan Smith who suffered a resignation call from the europhile Tory peer Michael Heseltine elsewhere in today's press.

The UUP had been aligned to the Conservative Party for much of its life - until the fall of Stormont and the introduction of direct rule by Edward Heath in 1974. And while a Tory leadership bid is unlikely in the extreme, Mr Trimble has made a number of calls for the parties to merge previously.

In recent weeks, Kenneth Clark, Michael Portillo and David Davies have all made similar statements and reject the idea that they are interested in leading the Conservative Party.

(GMcG)

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