Saturday 22 October 2016

FG's leadership problem extends beyond Kenny after its D4-centric campaign left party in tatters

Published 29/02/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Pic Steve Humphreys
Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Pic Steve Humphreys

Within Fine Gael, there's an apocryphal tale doing the rounds about David Cameron's advice to Enda Kenny following his British general election victory, against all expectations, last year.

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The Prime Minister told the Taoiseach: "They'll tell you 10 days out that your strategy is wrong and you have to change. Do not change. Stick to your strategy."

The tactic worked for Cameron, but it was a calamity for Kenny.

In the post-mortem on its disastrous general election campaign, the euphemistic 'strategy' will doubtless be discussed by Fine Gael.

The party has spent the last four weeks stumbling from one controversy to another, then taking an overly long amount of time to release itself from the contentious issue.

The list includes ruling out Michael Lowry, explaining the fiscal space, ruling out Fianna Fáil, 'whingers' and, continually, its slogan: 'Keep the recovery going.'

The various affairs went down like a lead balloon with the voters. The party decided to keep the focus firmly on the economy, reducing taxation and providing stability.

The voters firmly told Kenny to go stick his message. Fine Gael's reading of the national mood was deemed to be out of touch and symbolic of a party that has got too cosy in power.

The only bright spot on the Fine Gael map was the southside of Dublin.

In the constituencies of Dublin Bay South, Dun Laoghaire and Dublin South West, the party took two seats in each off the back of a strong middle-class vote. And in each case, Labour was cleaned out, so the benefit of any coalition support went Fine Gael's way.

Therein lies the problem: the economic stability strategy was too south Dublin-centric and wasn't in tune with the mood in the rest of Dublin or the rest of the country. The party's focus groups were finding Sinn Féin's presence a particular concern in southside Dublin.

Where was the strategy for everywhere else?

The recovery isn't being felt in a lot of places.

The Coalition is viewed as arrogant. The liberal agenda hasn't been adopted in more conservative areas where the party gets a significant amount of its support.

Fine Gael TDs around the country found themselves in head-to-head battles with Fianna Fáil opponents - and losing.

In other cases, they were reliant on Labour transfers to get across the line.

The blame game has already started within the party. Kenny is rightly in the firing line. But so too his advisers who devised the strategy and then rigidly refused to deviate from that path.

"We don't need all the Dublin 4 brigade running all the campaigns," Michael Ring observed in a fashion that suggests he'll be giving 'them fellahs up in Dublin' an earful.

In a Presidential-style election, Kenny crumbled.

After the performance, the Fine Gael leader's position is undoubtedly in question, but there's not exactly a solid contender to replace him.

Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald emerge from this campaign will little enough credit.

Kenny gave each of them defined roles in the party's campaign, so they too will have to share the blame.

Moreover, when the party needed a senior figure to step up to the plate to rescue the flagging campaign, there was no rider on a white horse.

Michael Noonan did his bit five years ago. But this was an opportunity for a young pretender to step up.

It didn't happen. There are whisperings of help being offered but not taken up by the backroom team, who were intent on sticking to the plan.

Kenny is still Taoiseach, for now. He will try to cobble together a government from the wreckage of this election.

He is unquestionably damaged goods and in a weakened position.

But the party won't move on him while he is still in talks to return to power.

Certainly, none of the pretenders will be launching a coup. The dilemma for the party now is it cannot afford to go into another general election campaign with him as leader.

Fine Gael yet again have a leadership problem. And the solution is not very obvious.

Irish Independent

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