Varadkar v Martin: Latest polls show Micheál Martin edging ahead... let the battle begin
The latest polls show Micheál Martin edging ahead, as the two main parties face an election battle. With the economic clouds darkening and Leo losing his shine, can the Fianna Fáil leader finally seize his opportunity? Kim Bielenberg reports
It is a tense and uneasy marriage of convenience that has lasted much longer than most pundits would ever have expected.
For decades, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were the most bitter enemies with their origins in the deadly divisions of the Civil War.
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But three years ago, Micheál Martin decided that political circumstances dictated that Fianna Fáil should prop up a minority Fine Gael government in a confidence and supply agreement.
It is an unlikely partnership that has been secured and extended in the atmosphere of crisis surrounding Brexit, but it is only a matter of time before political hostilities resume.
Leo Varadkar this month indicated that he wants an election next May.
The campaign promises to be a gruelling battle, where Micheál Martin will have his last chance to become Taoiseach after almost a decade as the leader of the opposition.
Martin has now been installed as odds-on favourite at 4/5 to become Taoiseach after the election by bookies Paddy Power. But it is surely a marginal call, with Leo Varadkar at 10/11.
"It's so close that it's almost down to the toss of a coin," said one former government adviser. "It could just be down to who can do a deal with smaller parties."
The latest polls show the Fianna Fáil leader neck and neck with his Fine Gael counterpart, as some of the shine comes off the younger leader. In a Behaviour & Attitudes Poll for the Sunday Times, Fianna Fáil were on 29pc, ahead of Fine Gael on 26pc. An earlier RedC poll for the Sunday Business Post showed Fine Gael at 29pc and Fianna Fáil at 28pc.
The RedC poll showed that Martin is the most popular political party leader, with 46pc support, while Varadkar is on 40pc.
It all looked different for Martin a year ago when there were rumblings of discontent within his party about the pact with Fine Gael, where FF facilitates budgets and agrees not to oppose the Government in confidence motions.
In the autumn of last year, Micheál Martin was being touted as the only Fianna Fáil leader in its 92-year history who would not become Taoiseach.
There was unhappiness in the party ranks that Martin was trailing Varadkar in the polls by a wide margin. The prominent backbencher John McGuinness warned that Fianna Fáil was like a lamb awaiting slaughter at an election.
But now, with his party reviving its fortunes in local elections in Dublin and edging ahead in national polls, Martin may feel vindicated.
Dr Theresa Reidy, lecturer in politics at University College Cork, said: "There is recognition now in Fianna Fáil that Micheál Martin is probably the party's greatest asset.
"He has guided them through these years in opposition - and it has been a difficult task.
"There was a lot of internal opposition from his party, but he held his nerve, and the agreement with Fine Gael will be seen as a wise decision."
As the son of a boxer, mild-mannered Martin always knew that if he can stay in the bout long enough as an opposition leader, he can score a knockout blow.
Some of the gloss was always likely to come off the young Taoiseach, and his term in government is only likely to become more difficult, with the prospect of a hard Brexit and economic clouds darkening.
"Fianna Fáil is perhaps relieved that they are not going into an election when Leo Varadkar is a shining new leader," said the former government adviser.
"Things don't look so perfect for Leo now, and at the same time, Micheál Martin doesn't look old and tired."
The former senior government official says the "putting Ireland first" strategy of securing a stable government, which was adopted by Martin, suits the spirit of the age, where voters fear the instability of Brexit.
"Fianna Fáil are given credit for the period of stable government, because people look across the water at the chaos in Westminster and think - there by the Grace of God go us all."
Dr Eoin O'Malley, lecturer in politics at Dublin City University, says: "Fianna Fáil are given kudos for maintaining stability and acting patriotically. At the same time, they have avoided blame for the things the Government did not do."
It could be argued that both the main parties have benefited from the Brexit shambles and the farcical scenes in Westminster. At the last general election, the two main parties combined won 50pc of the vote. But over three years after the confidence and supply agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the combined support for the parties in the polls is fluctuating between 55pc and 57pc.
The crisis in Westminster has deflected attention from issues where the Government is considered weak such as housing, health and broadband. Although we have yet to see the true fallout of Brexit, Varadkar is given credit for the way he has handled the issue thus far.
One of his most polished performances was at the meeting with Boris Johnson earlier this month, where he seemed to find the right balance between diplomatic politeness and firmness. The UK prime minister, by contrast, looked under-prepared and shambolic.
Dr Maura Adshead, lecturer in politics at the University of Limerick, says: "It doesn't really matter what kind of eejit we have in charge. Everyone can look statesmanlike when you put them next to Boris."
Dr Adshead says Brexit has overshadowed issues such as the housing crisis, which in a normal election cycle would be devastating for a party leader. Varadkar was fortunate in his timing as he succeeded Enda Kenny as Taoiseach in the middle of 2017. The tough period of austerity, when Kenny's government had to make drastic cuts, was over and the economic recovery was well advanced. Unemployment had peaked at 16pc in 2012, but was down to 6pc by 2017.
With this economic fair wind, Varadkar's government had much more leeway to increase public spending.
Edgar Morgenroth, professor of economics at DCU, says we are now entering a period of much greater uncertainty and there could be very little scope for election giveaways by next year.
Professor Morgenroth believes Brexit could deliver a short-term hit to the economy and could push us into a technical recession.
"The best estimate we have with Brexit is that we will have no growth for a year. That means we will not be able to grow public expenditure, and that will make it politically tricky for any government."
He says there are other global issues that could make the political climate less rosy including the trade war between the US and China, the economic downturn in Germany, and the instability of oil supplies in the Middle East.
He says Ireland is vulnerable to any global downturn, and if the economy is hit, we will see higher unemployment and a lower tax take.
"That means you have to spend less and that limits what you can do with social welfare, services and infrastructure."
Party of fiscal rectitude
According to the professor, any downturn will again focus attention on some of Fine Gael's big economic projects such as the National Children's Hospital and the broadband issue.
"Fine Gael used to be seen as the party of fiscal rectitude, but the hospital and the broadband issues have not shown them to be a party that is careful with the cash," Morgenroth says.
If the hospital costs spiral further out of control, they will place Varadkar in the firing line, as it was one of his pet projects as Minister for Health.
This week, the Central Bank warned that Ireland's national debt remains higher per head than anywhere else in Europe and could soar to perilous levels following a crash-out Brexit or other external shock.
And the Economic and Social Research Institute warned that the Government might have to hold a supplementary budget if Brexit delivers a shock to the economy. This inevitably raises the spectre of the sort of hair-shirt budget that would damage the Government's prospects in an election.
Theresa Reidy says: "Any economic downturn would severely hit Fine Gael in an election, because they hope that the positive performance of the economy and the surge in employment will be a major part of their campaign."
Although many pundits still believe Varadkar is likely to win the next election, Eoin O'Malley of DCU says Fianna Fáil is now in the driving seat.
"My money is on Micheál Martin to be the next Taoiseach, because he will find it easier to win the support of smaller parties.
"Parties such as Labour, the Social Democrats and the Greens are open to going into government, but they won't want to support a party that has been in power for almost a decade."
In some respects, the two main parties can be portrayed as Tweedledum and Tweedledee as they try to hog the middle ground.
When asked what the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was, Taoiseach Seán Lemass famously replied: "We're in, and they're out."
But Martin may like to highlight a difference in culture between the two main parties.
Since he campaigned to be leader, Varadkar has made an unashamed pitch to be a leader for the self-reliant coping middle classes - "people who get up early in the morning".
Martin, by contrast, can appeal to community values and a shared sense of social responsibility across the class divide, particularly in rural Ireland.
Theresa Reidy says: "There is a strong perception that rural Ireland has been left behind. Fianna Fáil is seen to be stronger among older, rural voters, and in the West of Ireland."
The results in the local elections also show it should enjoy a dramatic recovery in many parts of Dublin.
A former government advisor said: "Varadkar has performed well on Brexit, but he is not always sure-footed politically.
"It was a major gaffe to make a joke about Martin being like a parish priest sinning behind the altar. That would have offended a certain cohort of Catholic voters unnecessarily.
"And he also made a mistake in indicating recently that he would prop up a Fianna Fáil government in the future. That seemed to show a lack of confidence."
Varadkar faces a dilemma over carbon tax. On the one hand, there is a growing clamour from voters for action on climate change. On the other hand, the planned hikes in tax on petrol, diesel and heating oil are bound to be unpopular.
When Varadkar was set to take over from Enda Kenny, one backbench TD predicted that he would blow Micheál Martin out of the water. But Martin is in with a fighting chance of becoming Taoiseach.
As Varadkar once said of the FF leader: "He became a TD during the Haughey era, he became a Minister during the Ahern era, and he became an expert during the Cowen era. And he's spent the last seven years learning to be the new kid on the block."