Has it never occurred to the old established parties that the public is simply sick and tired of the same old faces?
‘The permanent government’ is a phrase normally used to take a pop at democracy. We use it when we want to indicate that politicians are mortal, temporary. Here today but thankfully gone tomorrow.
Their masters, the mandarins, will always be with us. All they need to do is wait for the fickle electorate to remove a tiresome minister. Power will return to its natural resting place after a short wait.
In Ireland today, the phrase ‘permanent government’ might be more accurately applied to Fine Gael. The party that has lost two elections in a row is in decline, but miraculously is still in government. In December it will recapture the Taoiseach’s office.
The Blueshirts are beginning to look like a perpetual fixture.
The supposed benefits of political stability have metamorphosed into the drawbacks of staleness. Fine Gael has been in office for over a decade. Last week they were given a reminder of their unpopularity — but not of their mortality.
An Ipsos/Irish Times poll found Fine Gael is at its lowest ebb since 1994. After Enda Kenny’s 76-seat triumph in 2011, he lost 26 seats in 2016, returning with just 50 TDs. In 2020, under Leo, Fine Gael lost dramatically again, this time shedding 15 seats to emerge with 35 TDs.
It has suffered five years of political carnage. Yet Fine Gael is still the dominant party in government, about to resume what it sees as its entitlement, its rightful place as primus inter pares in a coalition.
Today, Fine Gael’s situation is even worse. Ireland’s confidence in the party is at rock bottom. Leo’s latest plunge came just a week after he was released from the threat of prosecution for leaking details of the infamous medical practitioners’ deal.
Political commentators had predicted he would enjoy a second coming now the cloud had lifted. The opposite was the case. The publicity surrounding his freedom from any charge has only served to remind voters of the unhappy incident.
His authority is far from restored. The poll revived nervous backbenchers’ fears that their seats were doomed and Varadkar’s leadership was a noose around their neck. His future time in office is likely to be defined by this incident. His was not a criminal offence, but a serious lapse that will hang over his head after he starts his next spell as Taoiseach in December.
Such lack of overall balance is unfair to Leo’s performance in office — but the incident looks likely to colour the electorate’s view of him and Fine Gael permanently.
The real problem for Leo and for Fine Gael is not his misdemeanour, but that both he and his party have been in power for far too long.
While the electorate has rumbled Fine Gael’s sense of entitlement — its assumption of a right to rule — Leo and some other Fine Gael ministers continue to behave as though they are permanently in government.
Leo’s action in leaking the document was not the dark sin often portrayed. It was simply a symptom of the delusions of permanence indulged by many members of Fine Gael.
The confidence vote was a rare Sinn Féin tactical mistake
Leo has been a member of cabinet for over 11 years, without a single day’s interruption. For a young man of 43, that amounts to over 25pc of his life. It is about half the time that he has been a full adult. For him, membership of cabinet is a normality of being a grown-up.
State cars, chauffeurs, fawning courtiers, the government jet and a huge salary come with adulthood. So does decision-making, some of which he does exceptionally well.
Last Tuesday the Coalition looked as if it was fighting back against the unstoppable tide of Sinn Féin. Mary Lou’s vote of no confidence, flagged as a cliffhanger, was seen off by a decisive margin of 19 votes. The Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday was, for once, upbeat. Leo was out of his leak quagmire and Mary Lou had been rebuffed. The confidence vote had been a rare Sinn Féin tactical mistake.
On Thursday the Coalition’s cough was softened. Fine Gael’s recovery began to suffer convulsions; support had fallen below the psychologically important 20pc mark, to a new low of 18pc.
Worse still, Fine Gael was languishing behind its real enemy, Fianna Fáil, now on 20pc. That bit hurt.
Yet there was little comfort in the poll for Taoiseach Micheál Martin. His ratings took a similar tumble to Leo’s, losing 11pc to 40pc.
He suffers from the same disease as Varadkar — longevity.
Micheál first came into office 25 years ago, when Bertie Ahern made him Minister for Education in 1997. He did 14 years in cabinet until 2011, when he took over as leader of the opposition for nine years. He is now Taoiseach and in December he will become Tánaiste.
Like Leo, his party support has declined since the disastrous 2020 election.
Unlike Leo, he is under threat internally. He must have shared Leo’s sense of triumph after Tuesday’s vote of no confidence, only to be brought back to the reality of Sinn Féin’s supremacy with a bump on Thursday.
Has it never occurred to both parties that the public is simply sick and tired of the same old faces?
The jibe so often used by Mary Lou — that Micheál and Leo are Tweedledum and Tweedledee — lands a punch every time both protest that the cost-of-living spike is not of their making. Such weak pleading makes them look helpless, incapable of sorting out the mess.
Mary Lou, however, looks as though she and Pearse Doherty will deliver relief — not through Sinn Féin’s questionable policies, but because of their personal freshness.
The depth of both major parties’ reverses is difficult to overestimate.
The polls show Sinn Féin’s dominance is well spread. They lead in all provinces and in Dublin. Their strength (44pc) among the 18-24 age group contrasts with the two rivals, where Fine Gael (17pc) and Fianna Fáil (8pc) trail far behind.
The only places where Sinn Féin is in third position are among farmers and AB voters. Fine Gael are still the first choice of the rich. Fianna Fáil are marginally the preferred choice of the elderly and farmers. None of these categories offer much promise for future expansion.
As Micheál and Leo head for the recess, they could do worse than ponder their longevity — their permanent government status. The electorate rejected both men at the last election. All the polls agree that they are on the road to losing again.
If they really want to keep Sinn Féin out of office, they should stop trying to peddle scare stories about the main opposition party.
There is an obvious, but more selfless, course of action open to them. At this stage Micheál and Leo have become useful to Mary Lou. A few fresh faces at the top of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil would not please Sinn Féin.