Wednesday 24 April 2019

Downfall: the inside story of Fine Gael's doomed campaign

Fine Gael strategists failed to read the public mood and relied heavily on tactics that tried to emulate 'Cameron's playbook', write Philip Ryan and Maeve Sheehan

Tough: Enda Kenny (centre) with Richard Bruton, Simon Harris, Paschal Donohoe, Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald and Michael Noonan at an election news conference Photo: Tom Burke
Tough: Enda Kenny (centre) with Richard Bruton, Simon Harris, Paschal Donohoe, Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald and Michael Noonan at an election news conference Photo: Tom Burke

Philip Ryan and Maeve Sheehan

Enda Kenny's pre-debating ritual involved a game of role play with his top election strategist at Fine Gael's Mount Street headquarters.

Kenny would play himself. Mark Mortell would play either Claire Byrne or Miriam O'Callaghan.

Labour Leader Joan Burton. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Labour Leader Joan Burton. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Someone else would be Micheal Martin or Gerry Adams or Richard Boyd Barrett. Mortell, in his RTE presenter persona, got to eyeball the Taoiseach and fire out the questions.

Kenny replied. Advisors analysed. And so the ritual went on, sometimes for a gruelling four hours.

All to help Kenny surmount his Achilles Heel - live televised party leaders' debates. Kenny had himself to blame.

The Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, had taunted him for months about his debating skills and it worked.

Read more: Revealed: Taoiseach offers half of Cabinet seats to keep power in extraordinary plan

Kenny ignored the advice of his closest confidants to declare to the media that he would face his political rivals on television.

Troubling times: By the time Enda Kenny called the election in January, his debating skills were the least of the campaign team's worries Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Troubling times: By the time Enda Kenny called the election in January, his debating skills were the least of the campaign team's worries Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Prepped and polished, Kenny was dispatched to his fate by his inner circle like the anxious parents of a child on his way to sit the entrance exam for the local posh school. All they could do was hope for the best.

"Our expectations were very low," one minister said drily last week. "And he didn't let us down."

It wasn't Enda Kenny's debating skills that cost Fine Gael so many seats in the General Election.

The best of political brains and communicators, fired up by secret assignations to learn from Tory party advisers in London, and a contentious political message, couldn't save the party either.

Fine Gael's General Election campaign began with so much optimism over tea and coffee in a conference room of the five-star Shelbourne Hotel on a November morning 16 months earlier.

Kenny had already informally picked his team: a mix of heavy-hitting politicians, political boffins, strategists and public relations types - the idea being that their skills and talents would converge to win the election.

Sitting around the table were Leo Varadkar, the health minister; Frances Fitzgerald, the justice minister; Dr James Reilly, the children's minister and deputy leader of Fine Gael; Simon Coveney, the agriculture minister.

Read more: The day the rural heartland revolted and cried: 'Where is our recovery?'

On the boffin side, was Mark Mortell, a director of Fleishman Hilliard consultancy firm and long-standing advisor to and friend of Kenny; Mark Kennelly, Kenny's chief of staff; his economic advisor, Andrew McDowell; Tom Curran, Fine Gael's general secretary and head of research, Terry Murphy.

They set up a committee to decide electoral strategy, that Fitzgerald would chair while the others would chair sub committees on communication (Varadkar), policy (Coveney) and Reilly (party membership). Brian Hayes, the MEP, had yet to be brought on to the pitch as director of elections.

"The idea was to ensure there was a consultative process involving as many people as possible including backbenchers who worked on party policy," one strategist said last week.

Last week, the slogan Fine Gael hoped would win the campaign lay abandoned and unclaimed in the debris of the party's election disaster.

No one admits to coming up with the now contentious phrase "keep the recovery going", that many backbenchers claim spoke only to the affluent areas of South County Dublin.

"Brian Hayes signed off on it but who came up with it I don't know. It was presented to us a fait accompli," one senior minister said.

"But no one threw up a red flag or banged the table," the minister added.

Strategists say it was road tested at the Fine Gael conference in Mayo last year. "Secure the Recovery" was the theme of the weekend.

Another line trotted out to the delegates was "Making Work Pay" and "Stability Versus Chaos".

Strategists put the slogans along these lines to focus groups supposed to represent the electorate, assembled by marketeers paid for by Fine Gael.

The by-election in Carlow/Kilkenny last May gave them an opportunity to test the slogans on the electorate. Fine Gael's candidate David Fitzgerald lost to Fianna Fail's Bobby Aylward. "We got fair warning in the Carlow/Kilkenny by-election that we were never going to win the General Election on the economy," one source said.

In fact, an internal report on the election failure flagged problems with Fine Gael's message. It put party strategists "on notice" that the voters' appetite was for "better services and a fairer Ireland".

Read more: Niamh Horan with the Healy Raes: 'There's no such thing as how much I'm worth. Christ, I'm not Madonna'

The strategists were busy admiring the British Tory party's unexpected sweep to victory in Downing Street.

The Tories did it on the back of a famously disciplined campaign, with a message shaped and controlled by David Cameron's tight-knit group of strategists. And it was all about the long-term plan for the economy. One of the campaign messages was: "let's stay together on a road to a stronger economy".

So in June last year, Mark Mortell, Mark Kennelly and Tom Curran packed overnight bags and flew to London to find out how the Tories did it.

They met Craig Oliver, now communications director at Downing Street and the Conservative Party's social media gurus Craig Elders and Tom Edmonds - who later came to Dublin to deliver a two-day social media seminar to staffers.

Oddly, the Fine Gael team's London trip was kept tightly under wraps and the strategy team didn't reveal much about it to their colleagues afterwards. "It was never really acknowledged internally that the lads went to London," a senior staffer said.

Senior strategists played down the influence these meetings had on the campaign, despite the obvious comparisons on messaging and the Taoiseach's tightly controlled election tour.

One source said: "It was a very valuable engagement and more than anything else it told us the way we were planning was on the right track."

Not everyone agreed. In the aftermath of the quake that shook Fine Gael, several senior politicians accused their non-elected tacticians of being "obsessed with Cameron's playbook".

By the time Enda Kenny called the election in January, the Taoiseach's debating skills were the least of the campaign team's worries.

The electoral strategy committee was devised as a collaborative effort without a specific leader that would reach decisions by consensus. As months passed, rows and bickering emerged between politicians and the party apparatchiks

Politicians complained that policy decisions were being too tightly controlled by Department of the Taoiseach's staff - specifically Mark Kennelly, Andrew McDowell - whose nickname is "the Taoiseach's Brain" - and Ciaran Conlon, Richard Bruton's special adviser.

McDowell and Kennelly are credited with being behind Kenny's contentious promise to abolish the hated Universal Social Charge - announced at a Fine Gael presidential dinner.

"That policy committee was heavily dominated by Andrew McDowell. Simon Coveney was supposed to be over that committee but he lost the battle with McDowell very early on," a source said.

Some sources claim another bone of contention was the emphasis on the economy itself rather than the "human impact" of the recovery.

"A politician has many flaws but one thing a politician can do is read the public moods . . . the people in our party at a strategic level didn't listen," a minister said.

Other ministers you talk to will tell you they raised it with them but "we were constantly told 'it will be grand, hold your nerve'".

"Bullshit," said one committee source who insisted they were all happy to go along with the strategists' proposals.

"I'm not going to pretend this was perfection but there was opportunity for the parliamentary party to make inputs to the policy decisions," the source added.

On Tuesday, February 2, Kenny dissolved the parliament before hurrying off to the Aras, without any advance notice to his election team.

He did it at 9.30am, catching his election team on the hop.

A joint press conference with Fine Gael and Labour to launch the election campaign was mooted but abandoned, when Labour got the jitters.

Instead, Fine Gael cobbled together a last-minute launch in the Alexander Hotel and Kenny unfurled its message: "Keep the Recovery Going".

It was a mess, sources said. The lighting didn't work.

Ministers didn't know where they were supposed to be standing, let alone what they were supposed to be doing.

At around 2:30pm, Kenny arrived to the venue through a side door surrounded by his handlers, who would be constantly by his side for the coming weeks.

Kenny fluffed a line or two and got lost in "fiscal space" when pushed for details on the amount of money the party had to spend on taxes and investment.

Finance minister Michael Noonan was forced to step in and take control but he also seemed to be at sea on the figures.

"It was a disaster and no one knew what they were doing and it ended up setting the tone for the whole campaign," a senior Fine Gael figure said.

So the campaign began, under the shadow of gangland murders in Dublin, confusion over the economy, progressing on to poor leaders' debates.

But early opinion polls put Fine Gael at 30pc. Even with a poor performance from Labour it would be possible to form a government with Independents.

Over subsequent polls, support fell and TDs on the ground, particularly in the west of Ireland, were not happy with how things were going. Older people were insulted at Fine Gael's meagre €3 rise in the State pension.

In response, it was decided to bring forward an announcement on a package of measures for older people.

The strategists held two conference calls, one with national organisers and another with the 40 directors of elections.

Tom Curran fielded the debate as directors of elections, mostly along the west coast, reported back the failure of the recovery message.

According to one director of elections, the discussion wasn't particularly heated or dogmatic.

"I thought the conference call was positive. It was said that the recovery wasn't resonating. We were told to keep plugging away, it was 'like come on lads, We need to keep talking about the recovery'," he said."I felt myself that it was all about the economy."

Sticking with it was the wrong course.

At a meeting of Fine Gael Cabinet ministers half-way through the campaign, strategists were urged to change the message, to "humanise it more", said one source.

"We were told by the strategists 'don't be stupid, calm down and it will all come good in the end'."

"It wasn't just strategists," said another minister. "There were senior ministers who thought everything would be okay. Noonan was one of them and when he speaks, it helps soothe everybody," they added.

Yet another Kenny gaffe sealed the mood, if not the fate, of Fine Gael.

On the Saturday before polling, Kenny was in Castlebar addressing what was supposed to be a rallying cry to the local party faithful. Instead he insulted them. People who complained about the lack of economic activity in Mayo? "These people are All-Ireland champions when it comes to whingeing," he said.

Kenny's remark went viral, delighting his opponents. But Fine Gael's problems were about to get worse. That evening a Sunday Independent/Millward Brown survey had the party on 27pc, beneath a headline that predicted the election was Fianna Fail's to win.

Kenny dug himself deeper into a hole.

He refused to apologise for the remark at a press conference the next day. Ministers couldn't conceal their deep unease as he delivered a forced and staged final address to party members in their campaign headquarters on the banks of the Liffey in Dublin.

Fine Gael's election campaign was now officially in meltdown. TDs faced up to the prospect of losing seats. Others desperately attempted to change tack.

Even in affluent south Dublin, the theme on the doorstep was not recovery but health horror stories of waiting lists and emergency room disasters, younger working voters unable to raise mortgages to buy their own homes.

The themes "constantly" came up, according to Alan Shatter, a former government minister, who had thought he was doing okay in Dublin Rathdown, a new constituency where Fine Gael hoped to get two of three seats. As the campaign entered its third week, he knew it would take a "miracle" to win two but he thought his own was secure.

But panic was setting in. On the Monday before polling, Shatter got a text message from Brian Hayes. The director of elections wanted to meet him to talk about the campaign.

"We were told that headquarters had had some poll conducted and the poll showed myself and [Shane] Ross were neck and neck - he was on 25 per cent and I was on 24 per cent or something."

Hayes said the party was going to do a leaflet drop in one part of the constituency asking voters to give their number one preference to Josepha Madigan and number two to Shatter.

But on the eve of polling on Thursday night, Shatter's team organised a counter offensive, dropping letters pleading for a number one for Shatter that reached around 200 houses.

It was too late.

Alan Shatter ended up trailing in 1,000 votes behind Josepha Madigan.

He blamed the loss of his seat on bad vote management but he also blamed strategists for the "calamitous" messaging that cost them the campaign.

"I think those engaged in orchestrating the campaign were somewhat delusional, that for some reason they were in the Tory party game play of the last election in the UK and that in the last minute there would be a surge of support for Fine Gael," he said.

Also sensing the public's ambivalence to the "Keep the Recovery Going" message, Varadkar changed all his leaflets in the last two weeks of the campaign to read "Bring the Recovery Home".

"It just wasn't hitting home," a source said.

But strategists still hoped for a bounce. Friday night in Dublin, polling closed and Fine Gael strategists, party workers and supporters, gathered around pubs and hostelries to toast the end to the short but difficult election.

Hopes the same last minute surge of support that secured the Tory victory in the UK the previous year would see them through were out of touch.

At 10.48pm, coming up to closing time, the Irish Times posted the results of its exit poll on its website.

It put the party at just over 26 per cent - that translated into a massive loss of seats. The party was well and truly over.

The next day was even worse than they imagined - the party lost 26 seats.

"A lot of people want to dump everything on Kennelly, Mortell and McDowell but I don't think that's fair," a Cabinet minister said. "In effect, they were our employees so we all need to take responsibility."

On Wednesday, Kenny came face-to-face with his depleted parliamentary party. Over six hours, he heard horror stories from the campaign and listened as his TDs paid tribute to fallen comrades.

Galway West TD Sean Kyne told Kenny he hasn't been able to sleep since the election, others agreed.

Still Taoiseach, Kenny is intent on limping into the next government. But after the carnage of GE16 it remains to be seen how long his wounded soldiers will stand by him.

Sunday Independent

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