David Trimble's grip weakens but Unionist pretenders bide their time

Opinion is hardening within the Ulster Unionist Party that David Trimble's days as its leader are almost certainly numbered in the wake of reverses in both the Westminster and local council elections.

But the sense is also widespread in party ranks that he should be allowed to go in his own time rather than face an immediate challenge at next Saturday's annual meeting of its ruling council.

This mood poses a problem for his leading potential challenger, Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson. He faces the choice of moving in for the kill now or biding his time in the hope of Mr Trimble voluntarily stepping down within the next few months.

Although some elements have been urging Mr Donaldson to seize the moment, no real head of steam has yet built up to create any widespread feeling that a direct challenge should be launched right away. He has played down speculation that he might stand, but has not formally ruled it out.

At the same time Mr Trimble has not signalled that he would strenuously oppose any challenge. While he has said he has no intention of resigning, he has done so in a defensive manner rather than with any ringing declaration of defiance.

The party's poor performance in the two contests, losing three Commons seats and more than 30 council seats is seen among his opponents and supporters alike as probably sealing his fate. He has been unable to halt Protestsant disillusion with the Good Friday Agreement, and unable to stand up to the electoral assaults of the Rev Ian Paisley.

The possible contender who is closest to the Trimble camp, Sir Reg Empey, has flatly denied reports that he might link up with Mr Donaldson to form a so-called "dream-team" dual leadership. As a minister in the Belfast executive Sir Reg is, like Mr Trimble, closely identified with the Agreement.

In a statement Sir Reg declared: "The Party must hold its nerve and prepare to square up to its real opponents in the coming weeks."

The other contender most fequently mentioned is the Rev Martin Smyth, the South Belfast MP who is opposed to the agreement and who polled well when he stood against Mr Trimble last year. He would be seen as very much a caretaker leader given that on Friday last he reached the age of 70.

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