Sunday 16 December 2018

Jody Corcoran: Leo factor now a real challenge to Martin as FG reaches tipping point

Varadkar will be tempted to call an election, with the man of the moment winning even the satisfaction of SF voters, writes Jody Corcoran

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at the Cabinet meeting and launch of Project Ireland 2040 at IT Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at the Cabinet meeting and launch of Project Ireland 2040 at IT Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

There is a point at which a trend becomes an unstoppable momentum. Leo Varadkar is almost, but not quite, at that point. He will be soon though, if he keeps going like this. So Micheal Martin should be worried, if not yet alarmed.

Fine Gael has opened an eight-point lead over Fianna Fail, according to our opinion poll today.

That represents a 16-point turnaround between the two parties since precisely this time last year.

Back then, Ireland was at a different place, of course. For one thing, Enda Kenny was still Taoiseach.

In February 2017, Kenny's Fine Gael was at 25pc in our poll, down a point from its support level in the 2016 General Election; and Martin's Fianna Fail was at 33pc, up nine points since that election.

With an eight-point lead over Fine Gael, there were those in Fianna Fail at the time that felt the party should pull the plug and go to the country again, one year after the election.

There was cause. Well, sort of. Fine Gael was on the rack over Garda reform.

The false sex abuse allegations against Maurice McCabe had just emerged.

But Martin thought otherwise. Some would say he dithered. But he argued at the time that the mandate handed to all parties in the election had not been properly exercised. He was right. That's all water under the bridge now though.

The story of this poll is still the story of the economic collapse - unfinished business, if you like.

To explain, you need to read the party support chart from the bottom up.

If Micheal Martin should be worried, then Independents and smaller, mostly far Left, parties should be doubly so, and Labour should be alarmed.

Independents/others now register only 11pc support, down well over half on their 27pc support level in the last election.

And Labour is at 4pc, down three points from its disastrous election result.

Satisfaction with Brendan Howlin's leadership, meanwhile, is at 22pc, down six points since a comparative poll last July.

Now back to the economic collapse…

In the last election, Fianna Fail surprised many to win back a significant chunk of the support it had lost after that collapse.

After five years of Fine Gael/Labour austerity, however, another large chunk of former Fianna Fail support instead went to Independents and smaller parties in the last election rather than back to Fianna Fail.

Now that support is deserting the Independents and smaller parties, but not returning to Fianna Fail in great numbers.

Yes, Fianna Fail is still up four points on its last election showing.

But the lion's share of that floating support is solidly rowing in behind Leo Varadkar.

And make no mistake, the attraction is Varadkar.

His personal satisfaction rating is at 58pc, up nine points since last July - a month after he was elected - which at the time was 12 points higher than the then satisfaction rating of Enda Kenny.

Varadkar's satisfaction rating is also 10 points ahead of Micheal Martin, who until now had been consistently the most popular party leader.

Let's look a little closer at who is satisfied with Leo, and this is potentially significant: a sizeable 37pc of Sinn Fein supporters are satisfied with his leadership, a full 14 points more than are satisfied with Micheal Martin, a level of Shinner satisfaction unprecedented for a Fine Gael leader.

Which indicates that Varadkar's 'bash the Brits' Brexit rhetoric is paying dividends - for now.

And look closer still, at our so-called 'toxic' question: before the last election 34pc said they would not consider voting for Fine Gael; now only 22pc say they would not.

So Fine Gael has become far more vote transfer-friendly under Varadkar than Kenny, but still not quite as transfer-friendly as Fianna Fail.

Sinn Fein is as toxic as ever, although it must be said that polling was conducted mostly before but also for a week after Mary Lou McDonald's widely anticipated election as party president.

McDonald's satisfaction rating (39pc) is only marginally up on that of Gerry Adams (35pc), and Sinn Fein remains on 20pc, which will likely fall back, as before, during the white heat of an election campaign, because its support base does not fully turn out to vote.

However, since Varadkar's election as Taoiseach, the Government's satisfaction rating has also soared: now half (49pc) are satisfied, up 22 points since the final days of Enda Kenny's austerity-ridden leadership.

So, all told these are heady days for Leo Varadkar. Remember, polling was conducted before the Government announced a €116bn National Planning Framework and Ten-Year Capital Plan, even if that plan was the background mood music.

What will he do next? With the economy on the up, and up, and with nine months to go before the scheduled three-budget 'review' or the end of the confidence and supply arrangement, he may well be tempted to go for an election himself before year's end.

Between now and then, he has the Repeal the Eighth referendum to contend with, the outcome of which will be close, but may well be lost, according to our poll. The referendum will, however, also distract from more mundane political events which always have the potential to take some of the gloss off a sitting Taoiseach.

In other words, Varadkar can get on with planning a hugely positive budget in October, to include significant tax cuts as proposed by Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes on these pages today.

There are always events, dear boy, but it is difficult to see such events knocking Varadkar from his perch between now and October.

One of those events may be the abortion referendum - if it is lost.

More likely, another will be Brexit.

As also outlined by Eoin O'Malley today, Varadkar has over-sold the Brexit deal which Ireland secured in EU-UK negotiations last December.

The deal is neither bulletproof nor cast iron, but that reality will not crystallise until next year.

My view is that Varadkar will go for an election before Brexit negotiations get to the business end.

And what of that election?

Well, here is why Fianna Fail should be worried, if not necessarily alarmed. Just yet.

In the last election cycle, the party was similarly behind Fine Gael, on occasion more so, in fact, but made up big ground in the campaign itself.

Micheal Martin is a good and seasoned campaigner, and this poll shows the public still has great regard for him.

Furthermore, Fianna Fail is sitting comfortably at 28pc and can be expected to increase support in the campaign.

We know Leo Varadkar is not great on the ground: he has never brought in a running mate, did little to shore up Fine Gael support in the last election, and was virtually wiped out on the hustings in the Fine Gael leadership contest.

But still, this poll shows that the next election is Fine Gael's, or rather Leo Varadkar's, to lose.

The man has caught the mood of the moment and the mood now is far more positive than in Election 2016, when Fine Gael irritated just about everybody, and two years prematurely, by urging them to 'keep the recovery going'.

The question after that is who, or which parties will form the next Government.

Well, from this poll we know who Sinn Fein supporters would prefer: why, Leo of course.

The man who can do no wrong. For now.

Sunday Independent

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