Sunday 22 September 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'The Tories are a wreck - and while FG hasn't reached those depths, it's showing signs of sinking'

Nigel Farage. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Nigel Farage. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

To his supporters, he is a very modern Saint George, returning on his trusty steed to once again slay the dragon that is the EU.

To his opponents, he is a malevolent sprite who has inflicted the greatest damage on Britain since German bombs stopped falling on their cities.

To the neutrals - and they seem to be in a minority - Nigel Farage is a rather eccentric curiosity who, against all the odds, managed to single-handedly herd the UK's voters into choosing Brexit.

But as the mainstream UK parties discovered during the Brexit referendum campaign, you underestimate him at your peril.

When Brexit was passed - nearly three years ago now - most people assumed that the controversial MEP would quickly vanish from public view, his job done.

However, as we have learned since that referendum, most people have been consistently wrong on virtually every matter pertaining to this crucial issue. So, rather than riding off into the post-Brexit sunset, he is not only back, but he is stronger than ever.

Few people could have predicted that the Tories would have such a catastrophic meltdown under Theresa May's leadership. Even fewer would have had the temerity to suggest that Farage's imaginatively titled Brexit Party would now be heading into next week's European elections with the opinion polls suggesting that he now has a commanding lead over everyone else.

Yet that is the strange position in which the UK now finds itself. And what is strange for the UK could be disastrous for the Republic of Ireland.

According to the latest poll for one Sunday newspaper, the Brexit Party is now in front on 34pc, with Labour trailing second on 21pc.

That, in itself, is eye-opening.

But for the Tories, who are currently bringing up the rear on a dismal 11pc, it's truly eye-watering.

Senior Conservatives are already trembling at the prospect of a bloodbath in the European election on May 23, with Tory Education Minister Damian Hinds admitting that: "I don't think anyone is in any doubt these are going to be difficult elections for us... for some people this is the ultimate protest vote opportunity."

Even worse for the Tories is the other recent poll which looked at how the Brexit Party would fare at a general, rather than the European election. If such an election was called tomorrow, the polls suggest that Farage and his team would pick up 49 seats. Jeremy Corbyn's Labour would become the largest party by a margin of 137 seats, leaving the Tories back in third place, facing their worst electoral performance of all time and looking at a long period of political irrelevance.

In fact, such a result would be the worst performance by any ruling party on these islands since Fianna Fáil imploded in the 2011 election, losing 57 seats and dropping to 15pc of its usual support.

The Irish people were angry then, the British people are angry now, and while many Fianna Fáil faithful tried to put a gloss on the collapse of its vote, the question in the UK remains whether there are that many Tory faithful left.

The success of the Brexit Party has a lot to do with Farage putting daylight between him and his former party, Ukip, which has now taken an inexorable slide into the more depressing and dangerous elements of the extreme right, becoming more like the BNP than simply another option for disgruntled Conservative voters.

Even so, while he has put in some decent performances on television, even receiving praise from some quarters for being more 'on message' than usual (as if a politician knowing his brief deserves a brownie point), his truculent behaviour on the 'Andrew Marr Show' on the BBC on Sunday was a tedious masterclass in Trumpian bluster and obfuscation.

But at the moment, all eyes are inexorably drawn to the slow-motion motorway pile up that is the current Conservative Party.

Even Theresa May's husband, Philip, is now believed to be urging her to step down. In truth, apart from being afflicted with the usual tunnel vision we have come to expect from politicians, it is genuinely difficult to comprehend why she insists on staying in a job which just seems to conjure up new ways to humiliate her.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties have failed to produce any sort of cohesive or even coherent Brexit strategy for the simple reason that neither leader seems sure of what it is they want to do. The only certainty is that whatever choice they make will alienate and enrage a large rump of their supporters.

From our own perspective, it seems that whatever way the UK goes next week, and then in the inevitable general election that follows, we're merely looking at a variety of increasingly bad options. The depressing and extremely concerning reality is that we have become collateral damage in the most catastrophic period of British democracy that any of us has ever witnessed.

But we shouldn't be too quick to indulge in a bit of schadenfreude, which is always an amusing game to play when it comes to self-destructive tendencies of modern British politics.

Fine Gael can only play the 'safe pair of hands' card so often, and while we are traditionally conservative with a small 'c' when it comes to our voting patterns, this Government has surely lost the support of the people.

A succession of bad decisions and silly pronouncements has rather dulled the sheen of Varadkar's halo, and the bump in public support both he and his senior ministers enjoyed in the warm afterglow of both the marriage equality and abortion referendums seems a distant memory.

The Taoiseach still has a long way to fall before he reaches Theresa May's levels of public opprobrium. But between blunders over everything from the National Children's Hospital to the ever changing figures being bandied about in terms of the broadband rollout to rural Ireland, and the various missteps in between, the days of Fine Gael riding a wave of public affection have gone.

Health and housing are now the two biggest concerns of most citizens and yesterday's horrifying report on the rental situation will only add fuel to the fire.

It's now more expensive to rent than to pay a mortgage in many parts of the country and if ever an issue was to force the Irish to take a page out of the French 'yellow vest' playbook, such a startling statistic could be it.

So, between catastrophic inertia in the UK and chronic ineptitude in the Republic, next week's elections will undoubtedly throw up even more reminders that we are truly living in interesting times.

Which is surely enough to make most of us nostalgic for those more innocent days when we could all complain that politics is boring.

Irish Independent

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