Sunday 17 December 2017

Game on as Kenny's political reign draws to a close

It is increasingly hard to see a path that doesn't lead to a general election this year

Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Eoin O'Malley

After a few weeks that have seen all our focus on the immediate past, who said what, when and where, today's Sunday Independent Millward Brown poll gives us a brief glimpse into the future. We don't yet have clarity as to exactly when Enda Kenny will stand down, but the way in which senior Fine Gael ministers humoured Kenny as he said he was focused on the job of Taoiseach and the challenges of Brexit ahead suggests all are comfortable that he can be dispatched without much effort. He no longer has a team of enforcers to protect him. Kenny is in the dying days of his political career, yet apparently planning for the future. Most, even the normally belligerent Gerry Adams, seemed to have decided it would be disrespectful to point it out.

What of the real future? It is increasingly hard to see a path ahead that doesn't include an election in 2017. Fianna Fail might face into an election with a degree of optimism. The figures released today back up those of other recent polls confirming Fianna Fail's rise in the polls. At 33pc Fianna Fail is stronger than any time since the summer of 2008, before the Bank Guarantee, Anglo Irish Bank was nationalised, and the troika came. It's also the party fewest people would never vote for. This means it will do well on preferences. On these numbers, Fianna Fail can expect an election to deliver it 60 seats.

If Fianna Fail has done well from Opposition it's because it is an easy Government to oppose. Fine Gael has not been in control of policy, and has had to respond to Fianna Fail's demands in most things. But nor is it in control of events of which it should have been in control.

The McCabe scandal is not a bolt from the blue. Sometimes ministers unfairly take the rap for things that they couldn't reasonably have been expected to know about. But this was a scandal in 2014, and it wasn't solved in 2014, or it appears in any year since then.

It's hardly a surprise that Fine Gael's support has fallen since the autumn, though it's basically at the level of the 2016 election. What is surprising is that the Irish people are no more likely to think Kenny should resign now than last autumn.

It's surprising because the Government's response to the revelations was inept and unco-ordinated.

It showed Kenny at his worst. Rambling, folksy, but without a command of basic facts. He's been grasping at straws only to discover they're made of mercury. Kenny might take comfort from the poll, but it's unlikely there is enough on which to mount a fightback.

Fine Gael will hope that a change in leader can boost the party's polling numbers. We view parties through the prism of the leader. Except for the most entrenched party loyalist, we can't see Fine Gael without seeing Enda Kenny. Without Enda Kenny, Fine Gael might suddenly be a more attractive party.

The big question facing Fine Gael TDs and members is what leader to choose. Often opinion polls are taken when elections are only hypothetical scenarios unlikely to actually happen. This poll was taken at a time there was an increasing inevitability of a leadership change. There are two realistic contenders, Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar. Paschal Donohoe ruled himself out. Simon Harris is too young, and Richard Bruton wasn't good enough in 2010, and nothing he's done since marks him out as a leader. Frances Fitzgerald was regarded as a possible transitional leader, handy to take the blame for a poor election, and is thinking of running, but it won't be lost on Fine Gael TDs that she was put into Justice to sort out the problems in the Garda, not add to them.

Previous polls had shown a clear preference for Varadkar among the general public. That clear lead appears to be gone. Varadkar's four-point lead over Coveney makes the choice facing Fine Gael TDs and members voting in the leadership election tougher.

Among Fine Gael supporters, Varadkar has a strong lead, but Fine Gael needs to appeal beyond its own base. Coveney's strong showing is mainly based around Munster, Varadkar is preferred in most other places. But the gap is small. It's game on.

Whoever wins will have some tough strategic choices to make. Although few respondents to the poll were impressed with the year in politics, they are optimistic about the future. The number who think they'll be better off next year over who think they'll be worse off has gone from minus three in the autumn to plus 13. The question will be whether a new Fine Gael leader should try to hang on, establishing himself in the office of Taoiseach, or to go to the country immediately, hoping that the new leader will look fresh, and crucially take some of the sheen off Micheal Martin.

Of course, this isn't a decision the new leader can make alone. Fianna Fail can bring about an election as well. Fianna Fail might like to see Leo Varadkar in office for a while. They think he's a better campaigner than political manager. By contrast, Micheal Martin might find it hard to cede the office of Taoiseach to his long-time constituency rival. In this case, we will have an election before the summer. Sometimes it's the little things that matter.

Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy at Dublin City University

Sunday Independent

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