It was a classic smash-and-grab operation.
Smashing the previous leadership and then grabbing power before his challenger even entered the race.
Edwin Poots boxed off the support he needed to succeed Arlene Foster as Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader as she prepared her resignation speech – and never looked back.
But, for others in the DUP, his rise to the top is the nightmare outcome they dreaded.
“We didn’t see this coming,” said one party officer, as he watched his new leader march down the Stormont hill in triumph to meet the press.
image captionThe new DUP leader gave a short statement outside Stormont but did not take any questions from the media
He waited like the rest of us to hear the new leader answer questions about his plan for the DUP.
It didn’t happen.
Instead we got a statement with no follow-up questions before Edwin Poots, chased by the press pack, was whisked away in a car under the shadow of Edward Carson’s statue.
Our questions for Edwin Poots
It was a chaotic start for the new leader but not surprising for a minister prone to a political solo run.
So here are some of the questions we would have posed to the new DUP leader and why.
Almost 50% of those MLAs and MPs who voted didn’t want him as leader – how does he plan to win them over?
Might he consider making room for some of the 17 supporters of Sir Jeffrey in his ministerial reshuffle?
It is expected Economy Minister Diane Dodds and Education Minister Peter Weir won’t survive the cull.
Junior Minister, and Arlene Foster loyalist, Gordon Lyons could also be pushed out.
They, along with their special advisors, may have to make way for those who backed Edwin Poots from the outset when others were holding back.
Paul Givan, Paul Frew, Christopher Stalford and Mervyn Storey could be in line for a front bench role.
image captionEdwin Poots supporters Christopher Stalford (middle) and Paul Givan (right) could be in line for big roles
His key appointment will be to the role of Northern Ireland first minister, who will sit alongside the party leader around the executive table.
Could that go to the party’s new deputy leader Paula Bradley who, as one of the more socially liberal voices in the DUP, already views her role as a “critical friend” to the leader?
Here is another question we didn’t get to ask – will the new leader allow his predecessor to remain in post as first minister for another six weeks?
That is the timetable Arlene Foster set for her departure but whispers of an earlier exit have already started circulating.
What about those plans to reform the party from top to bottom?
How nervous should some senior staff feel about that prospect is another question we didn’t get to pose.
Employment contracts may prevent any immediate move to remove key figures behind the scenes.
But one member of Team Poots hinted change is on the way.
“Edwin is not going to waste any time reforming the party structures as promised, that will start over the weekend,” he said.
Next question – his critics within the party fear he will drag the DUP backwards and won’t be able to grow its voter base. How does he plan to prove them wrong?
As one Donaldson-supporting MLA put it: “Edwin’s fundamental views are niche and the real winners today will be the Alliance Party.”
image captionEdwin Poots and his new party deputy, Paula Bradley, who has said she sees her role as being a “critical friend” to the leader
Stemming the leaking of DUP votes to the left and right of the party will be a key challenge for the new leader.
He only has to look to his own backyard – Lagan Valley – where the party’s vote share in the last Westminster election fell by 16% in the face of a 17% surge by Alliance.
We can expect the new DUP leader to reach out to other unionist parties to try to maximise their numbers in the Stormont chamber.
Edwin Poots said he plans to galvanise unionism to fight the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is a familiar battle cry – but what will it mean in practice?
Can we expect more DUP boycotts of north-south meetings?
Will he be logging on for the full plenary meeting of the North South Ministerial Council next month?
image captionThe Northern Ireland Protocol is opposed by Northern Ireland’s unionist parties which have said it undermines their place in the UK
Another more pressing unanswered question – is the new leader of the DUP prepared to bring down Stormont in his battle to scrap the protocol?
Can he oppose the protocol and continue to operate it at the same time?
That was the question posed but not answered by former DUP leader Peter Robinson.
As the minister in charge of the ports operating the Irish Sea border, Mr Poots has a weak spot which his unionist opponents like to exploit.
However, as minister he has moved to obstruct the protocol and may do so again.
We may hear more about his protocol protest plans after he meets the prime minister next week.
Other questions which didn’t get asked include:
- As the man who helped negotiate Irish language and Ulster-Scots legislation as part of the New Decade, New Approach Agreement, when will it reach the assembly floor?
- Is he still committed to implementing that agreement in full?
- What is the new leader’s view on government plans to halt legacy prosecutions against paramilitaries and veterans?
- What about the prospect of a border poll?
- And what’s his plan to steer Northern Ireland out of the Covid crisis and into post-pandemic recovery?
The DUP effectively gagged the candidates from speaking during the election campaign.
In his first minutes as leader, Edwin Poots chose to gag himself.
He knows he can’t do that for long.
When he finally speaks. he needs to have answers to at least some of those pressing questions.
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