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Former TV presenter Nesbitt favourite to become UUP leader

A FORMER TV presenter has emerged as clear favourite to become the new leader of the ailing Ulster Unionist Party in the North.

Mike Nesbitt, 54, has had a seat in the Stormont Assembly for less than a year but looks set to take charge of a party without an MP at Westminster and struggling desperately to hold on to its dwindling support.

Delegates at the annual meeting in Belfast at the end of the month will vote for him or John McCallister, 40, a farmer from south Down and also a member of the Assembly who wants the party to withdraw from the power-sharing executive and go into opposition.

A decision by Danny Kennedy, 52, the only Ulster Unionist minister in the Stormont's ruling administration, not to put his name forward for the leadership contest on March 31, left Mr Nesbitt as the odds-on candidate.

He used to present Ulster Television's peak-time news bulletins and current affairs programmes. He has also worked as a PR consultant and was appointed one of four Victims Commissioners whose principal aim was to promote the interests of victims and survivors of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

Mr Kennedy, the regional development minister, was expected to challenge for the leadership after Tom Elliott announced he was standing down. But he insisted today there was no deal between him and Mr Nesbitt.

He said: "A divisive leadership election at any point would not be in best interests of the party."

It effectively means that if Cambridge graduate Mr Nesbitt, who represents Strangford in Co Down, wins, Mr Kennedy remains as regional development minister.

Victory for Mr McCallister however will almost certainly signal withdrawal of the UUP from the coalition, becoming a party of opposition in an attempt to revive its electoral fortunes.

Close friends and associates claimed tonight he still had a good chance of winning. He is well liked and respected by all sides and retains excellent social and presentational skills which previous leaders lacked.

The UUP was the dominant political force in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. But it has been trailing badly behind First Minister Peter Robinson's Democratic Unionist Party.

Supporters of Mr McCallister believe there is only on way back. First, by pulling out of an executive where the DUP and Martin McGuinness's Sinn Fein have overwhelming control, and then rebuilding the party`s base.

Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea, who lost out in the 2010 leadership contest, said the need for Ulster Unionists to create a clear distinction between themselves and the rival Democratic Unionists was absolutely vital. Mr McCallister was the man to do that, he said, and dismissed Mr Nesbitt's chances.

He told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme: "It's not about soundbites. It's not about some fluffy nonsense.

He added: "It is about real politics which touch the people of Northern Ireland who are looking for something new and different.

"Anybody who thinks we have any power in the executive now is deluding themselves.

"All minorities simply do not have influence on a government which does not need your votes. Because we are a mandatory coalition, it is not as if the dominant parties think they need us. If we walked out, they carry on.

"The important thing John McCallister is putting forward is that this is really unhealthy for democracy, not good for the people of Northern Ireland. We need an alternative voice based upon experience and able to deliver inside and outside the chamber."