Saturday 24 March 2018

How FG threw it away: arrogance, dithering and gaffes galore

There were warning signs that all was not right with Fine Gael writes Paul Moran

Leo Varadkar with his parents Miriam and Ashok Varadkar at the count in Dublin 15. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Leo Varadkar with his parents Miriam and Ashok Varadkar at the count in Dublin 15. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Paul Moran

It wasn't meant to be like this. Enda Kenny and Fine Gael are on the cusp of spectacularly relinquishing their position of power in the Dail in a manner that is unprecedented.

At the start of this campaign, just over three weeks ago, Fine Gael was riding relatively high in the polls (27pc in a Sunday Independent/MillwardBrown Poll, touching 30pc in others).

With the economy booming (on paper at least), the assumption was that Fine Gael would move through the gears, pick up a few percentage points along the way and potentially be able to give its junior party a dig-out in terms of strategic voting.

The general hypothesis was that Fine Gael, at any rate, would be returning to Kildare Street comfortably in time for the Easter Rising commemorations. It was said that this election was Enda Kenny's to lose. But nobody really foresaw an implosion of this magnitude.

It looks like Fine Gael may have lost up to one third of its seats. That's some achievement.

So where did it all go wrong? Where do you start?

As the American columnist Franklin P. Adams once mused, "Elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody."

This certainly seems to be the case for Fine Gael.

There were warning signs that all was not right with Fine Gael in the Sunday Independent/MillwardBrown opinion poll last weekend.

Instead of focusing on the headline party support figure, a more instructive finding was that 17pc of the Fine Gael support was soft - that is, one in six supporters either had some reservations or were not at all certain in their voting intentions.

In these circumstances, you would expect the party to try to keep its bib clean. Unfortunately, throughout the campaign, Fine Gael was unable to do so.

Let's look at the evidence. If we start by looking at the broader picture, and then tunnel down into the minutiae of the past three weeks, it is clear that at almost every step of the way, Fine Gael has had a campaign from hell.

From an overall point of view, the tone of Fine Gael's message was one of telling us what we should want, as opposed to finding out what we wanted. Fine Gael conducts more internal research than most, but it seems that the danger of this approach slipped under the radar.

A taxi man put it more succinctly to me on the way to work this morning: "There was a smack of arrogance off them from the start."

In essence, Fine Gael talked at the electorate as opposed to talking to the electorate. The strategy of frightening voters into choosing the status quo simply did not work.

Aside from shortcomings in the tonality of Fine Gael's approach, the slogan "Let's keep the recovery going" backfired spectacularly.

My background is in research, and much of what we do is evaluating advertising. One of the things we often say to clients is "keep the message simple": spinning too many messages in an advert is dangerous - the main communication objective can be lost.

Fine Gael seems to have taken this advice to extremes - it took the opposite approach, focused solely on "keeping the recovery going" and had no Plan B.

When this message didn't resonate with the electorate, the campaign suddenly found itself holed below the waterline, and Fine Gael was floundering.

It was almost as if it hadn't occurred to Fine Gael that things were actually not as rosy for many voters as they assumed. Therefore not only did the central platform of its campaign fail to echo with many voters, it actively alienated them. Within the last week of the campaign, this began to dawn on strategists, and the emphasis and tone shifted to one of empathy with the plight of those "left behind".

However, at that stage the damage had been done.

The campaign in general was dull, with nothing really to spark the imagination of the nation. In this news vacuum, any gaffes were bound to attract more attention and commentary than normal. They were thus amplified each time.

Unfortunately for Fine Gael, one of the constants in these three short weeks was Enda Kenny stumbling from one gaffe to another.

From Day One of the campaign, Kenny's rather pithy observation that the vast majority of Irish people didn't understand the "economic jargon" hit a nerve with many.

Bear in mind, the party itself didn't really understand the maths of the fiscal space, so it was truly a double whammy. It was the most inauspicious of campaign launches.

The fiscal space error - Fine Gael's equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction - was critical. It handed the impetus to the opposition, and immediately set Fine Gael on the back foot.

That thorn in Fine Gael's side for so long, Micheal Lowry, also helped nudge the party off kilter. Again, what should have been a relatively straightforward ball to kick back into touch became a bit of a scramble to retain possession.

Enda Kenny is renowned for his dithering - think no further than how the election date was called. However, avoiding the question so many times on whether Fine Gael would do business with Lowry, before eventually ruling it out, was bizarre.

It reinforced for some the perception that the Fine Gael leader was indecisive at best, disingenuous at worst. For this trait to be magnified so clearly in the middle of a general election must have horrified party strategists.

In the second half of the campaign, we had the Castlebar Whinger debacle. Again, there was a distinct flip-flop performed. After subsequently retracting and offering a qualified apology for his remarks, both he and Fine Gael would have liked to have drawn a line in the sand. However, it was plain to see that the party was not really in control of its own destiny - it couldn't steer the campaign in the direction they would have liked.

They were continually putting out unnecessary spot fires, having been the ones who had lit the match in the first place.

The spectacle of Enda Kenny starting the final, and critical, leadership debate by having to apologise for the whingers remark encapsulated the nature of the Fine Gael campaign perfectly. The optics were simply wrong.

Even within that debate, Kenny was less than surefooted when questioned on the fairness of his own party's tax proposals. The McNulty affair also came back to haunt him.

The net result is that, in terms of first-preference votes, Fine Gael now finds itself in a position not much better than it was in 2002, the previous low point in the party's history. In some ways, this result is arguably even more disappointing for the party, given its starting position.

To have so many errors of judgement in such a short space of time (remember, this was the shortest campaign in generations), is baffling to say the least. No doubt Fine Gael will add that sense of bafflement to its sense of shellshock.

Paul Moran is executive director of MillwardBrown

Sunday Independent

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