Wednesday 28 September 2016

Kenny must wrest election momentum back from Fianna Fáil - or face the sack

Published 23/02/2016 | 02:30

'Much more is needed from the Taoiseach himself in tonight’s debate. It’s not enough for him just to ‘not make any mistakes’.'
'Much more is needed from the Taoiseach himself in tonight’s debate. It’s not enough for him just to ‘not make any mistakes’.'

Enda Kenny has three days to save his job. The notion will be rubbished by Fine Gael figures. But it's undoubtedly the case. The 'Sunday Independent' Millward Brown poll, and yesterday's ISPOS/MRBI result, both brought flashing red lights for Fine Gael.

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The momentum in this topsy turvy campaign is with Micheál Martin/Fianna Fáil and, of course, the Independents.

Fine Gael, with an insipid, error-prone campaign, is at best stalled, at worst going backwards. The presumed coronation of Kenny has turned into an unseemly scrap.

Fine Gael has been pulled back into the field. The odds of 1-10 on Kenny being returned as Taoiseach seemed about right for months. Now, suddenly, they look ridiculous.

At 27pc, Fine Gael would be doing very well to get to 50 seats. If Fianna Fáil gets to 25/26pc, which is quite possible, then the margin between the parties could be as close as makes no difference.

What then? A revolving Taoiseach in a FG/FF combination? A second general election? Both are possible.

But it also has to be asked if Enda Kenny could survive as leader if Fine Gael is down nearly 30 seats from 2011?

No party leader in the history of the State has overseen such a loss and continued in the job (sorry, Micheál Martin doesn't count).

The big worry for Fine Gael is the two opinion polls become self-fulfilling - that the Martin/FF momentum becomes the narrative. Fine Gael needs to find a way to change that, and quickly.

How does it do it? First and foremost, it needs to stop making stupid mistakes. That means not calling people "whingers" and then defending the comment. It means not going down cul-de-sacs like it did on the ridiculous 'fiscal space'. It also means strategists not saying stupid things in off-the-record briefings to journalists, like "we're going to scare the s*** out of people". That level of arrogance and cynicism is only going to alienate voters.

Secondly, Fine Gael, and Kenny in particular, needs to change the record in relation to its 'Fianna Fáil wrecked the economy' mantra. After five years of FG and Labour in government, it is beyond jaded and prompts national eye-rolling. It just smacks of making excuses for their own failings.

It also runs the risk of alienating one-time FF voters who switched to Fine Gael for 2011. Fine Gael needs those votes, including transfers, particularly in constituencies such as Dublin North-West, Dublin Central, Dublin Rathdown, Clare and Galway West, where it won't be in direct competition with FF for final seats.

Many commentators won't like it, but negative campaigning will still have a role to play - there's a reason why the US parties run those negative adverts. They work.

But it needs to be more nuanced than - and lacking the hubris of - the 'FF is the devil incarnate' lines, so beloved of Fine Gael ministers - and the aforementioned public declarations of intent to terrify voters.

It's a completely legitimate tactic though to remind people of the dangers of instability. And to point out what has happened in Spain, Greece and Portugal, in cautioning voters not to 'sleep walk' towards a hung Dáil and political gridlock.

Simon Harris's comparison with the Bord Gáis ads (where it warns the public not to leave it to somebody else to report a smell of gas) is a clever, gentle reminder to the electorate to use their vote judiciously.

Fine Gael, of course, needs to be careful to acknowledge that many voters have still not felt the upturn (something it has failed miserably in doing so far).

But, at the same time, getting across its message that the best way to 'bring the recovery home' - a subtle, but important, change to 'keeping the recovery going' - lies with returning this government.

One of the mysteries of the Fine Gael campaign is the failure to promote alternative voices to Kenny's. One of the Taoiseach's strengths over the past five years has been his willingness to delegate, but it's been largely absent in the campaign.

It's puzzling why Eoghan Harris's advice suggesting that Enda lead the campaign on the canvass (where he excels), and Varadkar, Noonan et al fronting the media side, wasn't followed.

Mind you, as Harris also pointed out in recent days, none of the Cabinet heavy hitters have been overly impressive in the limited opportunities they've got.

Certainly none of them have come close to doing what Brian Cowen did for FF in 2007, when he took on, and beat, the opposition single-handedly. More is needed from them between now and Friday than the milk and water served up to date.

And more, much more, is needed from the Taoiseach himself in tonight's debate. It's not enough for him just to 'not make any mistakes'. Martin has made all the running over the past two weeks. He's been sharper and more impressive. Kenny has looked ill-at-ease and unconvincing. He needs to win the hearts and minds of those undecided voters - of which there remain plenty.

It's a big challenge. Kenny has met challenges before. Many doubted he could ever be Taoiseach, much less perform well in the job. He defied those doubters. But the next three days will dictate if he gets to choose the timing of his exit.

Shane Coleman presents 'The Sunday Show' on Newstalk at 10am.

Irish Independent

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