Trimble's future in the balance despite expected victory over Unionist challenger

The political fate of David Trimble could be decided this morning when more than 800 members of his Ulster Unionist Party gather to choose between his policy of modernisation and a member of the party's old guard.

While there is no doubt that Mr Trimble will defeat his challenger, the Rev Martin Smyth, there is speculation that a vote of less than 65 per cent may affect the authority of the incumbent.

The leadership campaign has been conducted at lightning speed, given that Mr Smyth, 68, only emerged as a candidate little more than 48 hours ago. But there have been few surprises: prominent party figures have lined up as expected behind either Mr Trimble or Mr Smyth, though the Trimble camp was relieved when his unpredictable deputy John Taylor endorsed him.

The Trimble camp argues that he has been justified in taking the party into the uncertainpeace process and has chalked up significant victories, such as the end of the Republic's territorial claim over Northern Ireland. The Smyth faction would probably prefer a Unionist pull-out from the peace process.

Mr Trimble said of the challenge yesterday: "It's part of the whole question of change, generation change within the party, and is part of the way in which the party is renewing itself at the moment. Some people aren't comfortable with that." Mr Smyth said critics were wrong to write him off as yesterday's man. "There is a 50-50 chance and I believe it will be a surprising result." He said he hoped he could galvanise grassroots opinion.

The Trimble camp is also working to fend off a motion which would commit the party to refusing to join a new administration unless the Government drops plans to change the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

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