Published Friday, 16 March 2012
John McCallister MLA (left) and Mike Nesbitt MLA (right). (© Pacemaker)
Nominations closed at 5pm on Friday for possible successors to the outgoing Tom Elliott, who announced he would not run for re-election last week.
Strangford MLA Mike Nesbitt and South Down MLA John McCallister will now have a fortnight to convince the Ulster Unionist Party they should take over the top spot.
It comes after Mr Kennedy, who was widely tipped as favourite for the leader's role, revealed he would not be amongst the contenders.
We can confirm that at the close of nominations at 5pm today, two candidates have presented valid nominations for the position of Party Leader: John McCallister MLA and Mike Nesbitt MLA.
The Ulster Unionist Party
Mr Kennedy said: "After careful reflection, I have decided that a potentially difficult and divisive leadership election is neither in the interest of the party nor indeed the wider electorate.
"I therefore confirm that I will not be submitting nomination forms for the post of leader at this time."
The Regional Development Minister - who holds the UUP's only Executive seat - refused to say who he will be backing and denied a deal with Mr Nesbitt, who is now the front-runner.
Mr Kennedy said: "I wish the remaining candidates well as they go forward in this contest."
The two candidates stand opposed on several issues - Nesbitt's vision is to build power from within while McAllister's strategy is to withdraw from the Executive.
Former TV presenter and Victims Commissioner Mr Nesbitt said he was "sceptical" about the topic of Unionist unity.
With Kennedy withdrawing, the force is with Nesbitt.
UTV's Political Editor Ken Reid, The heat is on
Mr Nesbitt explained: "I have no objection to a debate on what that means, but after so many years as a broadcast journalist, interviewing senior DUP figures, and my more recent experience of fielding their inventive in the Assembly Chamber, I am entirely sceptical about what would motivate them to call for co-operation beyond self-interest.
"This is a contest about who has the Leadership skills that will be required to bring about a step-change in Ulster Unionist fortunes.
"Do not let this descend into a debate on the policies that come and go as the political and economic environment changes. Instead, let us focus on what is needed to revive and restore the Ulster Unionist Party."
Meanwhile Mr McCallister, the party's deputy leader, says he will take the Ulster Unionists into opposition at Stormont if he is elected.
He says: "I think it's important there is a very clear choice between Mike and myself for the position, as there is clear blue water between us.
"The main difference is I would go into opposition and I would be completely ruling out the Unionist unity stuff and all that goes with it.
"This decision is in every member's hands. At the moment all of the support is on the other side but the thing to remember is one person one vote. I am looking forward to the debate."
And so the battle will now commence - with the new leader chosen at the party's Annual General Meeting on Saturday 31 March.
© UTV News