News Irish News

Sunday 18 August 2019

Why Leo Varadkar could hammer out gains in a grim election

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP / Getty Images
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP / Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

LEO Varadkar has a sporting chance of making strides for Fine Gael by forging ahead with a general election most voters do not want.

He is only in office since last June and the Fine Gael heartland supporters, while still hopeful he can achieve good things for party and country, rightly see him as untested.

Mr Varadkar would be a big disappointment for his party if he gave up his deputy Government leader, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

The more conservative party supporters would end their charitable silence about his tweets and novelty socks.

So toughing things out and battling adversity in a winter election may arguably be his only real option here. How he would fare in such an electoral contest is still anybody's guess.

He has personally fought a total of five elections, both council and Dáil, since he made his political debut as a callow 20-year-old in June 1999. He told party members at the hustings last May he learned a lot from that first bruising experience, as he bombed out with just 380 votes, way off the pace for a Fingal County Council seat.

The newly-minted Fine Gael leader will know that the "who-knew-what-and-when," around Sergeant Maurice McCabe emails, would play for just a few days in any election campaign. And he and Fine Gael could take some benefit from it by blaming Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin for causing an election most voters do not want.

At all events, the Taoiseach will be happy to know that this issue will quickly fade and the battle for votes will swiftly harden, firstly around the social issues of housing and health, before then honing in on the daddy of all the issues: Brexit and "the economy, stupid!"

Housing is a very disappointing area - even for the most loyal Fine Gael party supporters. Delivery is painfully slow and the incumbent Taoiseach, flanked by his Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, will have to bat hard to hold their own in this matter yet again citing targets and arguing that there are some signs of progress.

Read more: Macho locker-room culture is why women avoid politics - and men are victims too

Fianna Fáil, the once and possibly future "builders' pals", could talk up a better show. Leo Varadkar will have to hope his party's arguments that Fianna Fáil cannot be believed will at least mitigate damage.

Sinn Féin will not pose Fine Gael much of a threat on this one, nor on other economy-related issues. It will continue to promise jam and more jam for the voters, funded by mythical extra revenue from a wealth tax and whacking so-called high earners.

Mary Lou McDonald will, however, be a formidable de facto leader in a campaign. Debates involving her and Leo Varadkar will not be dull.

As a medical doctor and former health minister he also knows that the health system is not a happy hunting ground for vote-getting. There is, however, a deep-seated pessimism surrounding the many problems afflicting the Irish health system.

This public pessimism means the other parties' elaborate promises of better times may not be believed. That includes health promises from Fianna Fáil, led by Micheál Martin, himself an under-performing health minister for almost four years in boom times.

Still, a cold snap during a winter election could drive up trolley counts. That would not help Fine Gael as the leader of the outgoing Government.

But once those "social issues" play for a time, matters will move to where all elections are won and lost. As a then unknown Bill Clinton famously said way back in 1992: "It's the economy, stupid!"

An intriguing feature of a face-off between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would be whether voters will continue to defy usual behaviour and prefer quality of services over pledges of more money in the pocket via tax cuts. In the two budgets agreed by this minority hybrid coalition, Fianna Fáil has made a great virtue out of insisting on more spending on services over tax cuts.

Deft reading of the public mood last time, in February 2016, brought surprise dividends to Micheál Martin and allowed him to defy pundits and opinion polls. Fine Gael has already set out its stall with promises of tax cuts.

Read more: Six key issues for voters in any snap election

So, will Fianna Fáil follow suit? Will voters revert to type and prefer money in the pocket? This writer believes it is more likely - but was wrong about that last time.

One assumes that enabling legislation for the Budget, notably the finance and social welfare bills, will be passed before TDs hit the canvass trail. It would be suicide to have to include explanations in the campaign to welfare recipients as to why their €5 weekly increases are not happening as billed.

But those kinds of assumptions are based on hopes that some vestiges of goodwill persist between the two big parties and indeed the others. All of that inevitably brings us to the core issue of Brexit.

Things are gathering pace here, building to a decisive EU leaders' summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, December 14 and 15. It is no rhetorical flourish to say that this meeting is the most important in Ireland's recent history.

We already have a situation where there is no power-sharing government in Belfast and the UK government in London is totally diffuse and confused on this issue. Ironically, just last Wednesday, the Dublin Government leaked a dossier showing the widespread belief that London lacked all credibility about Brexit across the EU.

Then late on Thursday Dublin was plunged into crisis. Both big parties must walk very carefully here as voters will not thank either for playing politics with Brexit.

So, last but by no means least, what are opinion polls telling us at this juncture? Short answer is that they are a mixed bag and subject to change in any campaign.

But the surveys do offer grounds for hope to Leo Varadkar. On a good day, he could get around 30pc of the vote, suggesting seat gains in what would undoubtedly be a grim and unwanted winter election.

That, however, assumes many things as yet untold.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News