Ulster Unionists and Tories to field joint candidates

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The Conservatives and the Ulster Unionist Party will today set out plans to "create a new political force in Northern Ireland".

David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey, the Ulster Unionist leader, will announce moves to field joint candidates in the province at the next election, The Independent has learnt.

Both parties insist they are not contemplating a full-blown merger, but want to forge much closer ties.

Lord Trimble, the former Ulster Unionist leader who joined the Tories in 2006, is understood to have acted as an intermediary between the two parties.

The Ulster Unionists have always been regarded as natural allies of the Conservative Party and the link will be underlined by candidates standing under the banner of "Conservative and Unionists" in future Northern Ireland elections. The party has suffered a sharp decline in the past five years, losing tens of thousands of voters to the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party.

At the last election its share of the vote slumped from 27 per cent to 18 per cent and it lost all but one of its six MPs.

It believes the move will put pressure on Labour, which accepts members from Northern Ireland but does not organise or stand in elections in the province.