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Independent.ie

Monday 18 June 2018

Opinion: Will the 'Varadkar bounce' tempt Fine Gael to risk an election?

John Downing

John Downing

Leo Varadkar is on a high in the opinion polls. It would appear that he has cut a dash in his approach to Brexit and more generally his youth and vigour are well regarded by the public.

This past weekend he got his third consecutive high poll ratings. Two surveys, including one for the Sunday Independent, put his Fine Gael party on 36pc.

Those of you who watch the figures will remember that this was the Fine Gael vote haul in that historic and ground-breaking general election of February 2011. It gave the party, then led by Enda Kenny, a record 75 TDs.

We know the following election in February 2016 was a very poor one for Fine Gael, with a campaign full of gaffes and spills. They scraped home with 50 TDs, and only the absolutely up-in-a-heap Dáil numbers allowed the party to pull together a minority hybrid government, operating by grace of the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil.

Now at Leinster House we hear the beginnings of a flurry. Could this "Leo bounce" be an opportunity for Fine Gael to regain the 2011 glory? That would put them in the driving seat to form another government, and leave their main adversaries in Fianna Fáil in a right fix, facing additional grief on their left flank from Sinn Féin.

You'll hear more talk about a general election in 2018 as the spring advances. It is undoubtedly a tempting scenario for the new Taoiseach in office only since last June.

If he could rely upon those opinion poll ratings being borne out at the ballot box, there would be no dilemma involved in choosing to hit the campaign trail. But life in general, and political life in particular, is not often that simple.

Leo Varadkar and his inner circle need only look across the water to see how fickle such scenarios can be. Theresa May emerged from the Brexit referendum wreckage in the weeks after the sudden departure of David Cameron as Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister.

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Let's recall that Mr Cameron's surprise election win in May 2015 already had a big influence upon Fine Gael's election strategy just eight months later. The idea that British voters opted for Cameron's Tories as the tried and trusted path to prosperity intrigued some Fine Gael strategists.

For many this was the origin of Mr Kenny's ill-starred "Let's keep the recovery going" election slogan. The problem was that too many beyond the greater Dublin area felt the recovery had not reached them. Following the Tory trail was not helpful.

On top of that we can look to Theresa May's disastrous decision last April to seek an enhanced parliamentary majority in elections on June 8 last. It was an error-strewn campaign characterised by Mrs May's failure to campaign with any kind of vigour. It ended with a hung parliament and her new government as prisoners of the Democratic Unionist Party.

But her election plans in April 2017 were based on wrong opinion polls which suggested she could not lose and that her Labour rivals were "unelectable." So, beware those polls Leo Varadkar!

And remember also that embattled Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, has made a recent leadership career out of defying the poll findings and campaigning doggedly for a better outcome. We are facing into a tricky and intriguing political year with changes likely on a day-to-day basis.

It will be many things - but it is not going to be dull.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent


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