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Potential election carnage will focus ministers' minds for marathon campaign

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Enda Kenny and Joan Burton

Enda Kenny and Joan Burton

Enda Kenny and Joan Burton

ENDA Kenny and Joan Burton have - at most - 64 weeks to pull back from the political abyss.

Today, TDs make their way back to Leinster House - and an estimated two-thirds of them know they have little more than a year to save their jobs. Fine Gael and Labour staggered their way through a calamitous year which ended with popularity ratings about as low as they possibly could be.

From today they will be trying to re-group and shape a political debate based on jobs and incomes. They will be hoping they can cadge some credit for the continuing economic upswing, and that this will change their own political fortunes.

But they are facing into a strange and continually-changing political landscape. People in both political parties are gearing up for an election close to the latest possible date of April 7, 2016.

If the election were held now, it would mean carnage for both Government parties. A series of opinion polls before Christmas showed Fine Gael below 20pc and Labour perhaps as low as 5pc.

There are various theories on what such an outcome would bring in a general election.

But let's note that in Fine Gael's worst election meltdown - in June 2002 - their 22.5pc vote share delivered 31 Dáil seats. It's fair to conclude that a dip below 20pc would be worse than that 2002 result - and the reduction in Dáil seats next time (from 166 to 158) could compound their woes.

In Labour's case we can look to February 1987, when they got 6.4pc of the vote and were lucky to return 12 TDs. Their then-party leader, Dick Spring, survived an all-night re-count to get elected by just four votes. The same extrapolations about the potential for things to be far worse next time also applies to Labour.

Let's recall that in the landslide election win of February 2011, Fine Gael had 76 TDs and Labour 37. So we are potentially looking at an enormous fall from political favour.

The more detailed constituency assessment by NUI Maynooth political geographer Adrian Kavanagh in this newspaper today is the first of many attempts to put names and party colours on those stark statistics.

We could be bidding adieu to a slew of household names in the Labour camp. Party leader Joan Burton's own Dublin West seat is far from secure, Communications Minister Alex White could be in danger, as could a host of others including many junior ministers.

On the Fine Gael side there is a suggestion that it is the newer intake of February 2011 who are nearest the gate. But Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe, who sees his Dublin Central base eroded - as the constituency is also reduced by one seat to three - is looking at an uncertain future.

The big question everybody is asking is can the Government turn this one around? Can they do any kind of meaningful damage limitation to give them a realistic opportunity of forming the next government?

It is difficult to answer succinctly right now. We have to say that things are heavily loaded against them. There is no guarantee that either Government party will get credit for economic recovery - even with increasing evidence that it is spreading out beyond the greater Dublin area.

The opinion polls tell us that Sinn Féin is still attracting a big share of the disaffected vote and the party rests in the early 20s, and by some reckoning tops the popularity ratings. But close on a third of voters opt for the mosaic that is "Independents and others".

The various debacles of 2014 - water charges, discretionary medical cards, persistent problems with gardaí, allegations of cronyism - have all damaged the public's confidence in this group of politicians to effectively order our affairs.

Trust, once broken, is hard to recover.

On the plus side, however, they have the factors of power and the wherewithal to offer sweeteners to voters in the form of tax breaks. Enda Kenny yesterday reiterated his pledge on this. But even that will be tricky, with Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin counter-charging that the Government is already leading a political auction.

There is so far very little evidence that key people in Fine Gael and Labour have yet found the personal confidence to take the fight to the voters. If they do not believe their own message, then it is a racing certainty the people will not be convinced either.

Irish Independent