Sunday 20 October 2019

Enda has been a lucky general but must up his game

'The fact that Mr Kenny is likely to enter the election as the only realistic option for Taoiseach will certainly boost Fine Gael'
'The fact that Mr Kenny is likely to enter the election as the only realistic option for Taoiseach will certainly boost Fine Gael'

Shane Coleman

If Fine Gael is to really benefit from the economic uplift and the lack of alternatives for government, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has to lift his game. He is without political peer right now, but you wouldn't think it based on his Dáil and media performances. The old lines about Fianna Fáil wrecking the country and 'meeting a man in the street' are sounding more than a little jaded.

The Coalition has an irritating tendency towards self-congratulation. People know how far the country has come in the last four years. They're now more interested in hearing about the next four. And that's what Kenny's focus must be. How well he succeeds will dictate the size of his victory margin in the next election.

As Enda Kenny's Government approaches the end of its term, the economy is clearly starting to take off. Exchequer figures suggest it will have around €2bn to play with come October's budget. It's not Celtic Tiger bonanza territory, but a fair amount of cash to splash.

The lift-off in the Coalition's opinion poll rating has been slower than the economic figures. But the trend is upwards, even for Labour. The fact that Mr Kenny is likely to enter the election as the only realistic option for Taoiseach will certainly boost Fine Gael.

In that respect, the election could have similarities with 2002 when the polls clearly showed Michael Noonan couldn't be Taoiseach and Bertie Ahern was the only credible option.

But there are also differences. Back then the economy was booming. Everybody felt it in their pocket. Fianna Fáil reaped the political dividend of that. But unless voters actually feel that they've personally benefited, they're unlikely to give much credit for the economic recovery. There's still a lot of anger among voters about the tough medicine, however necessary.

Even a giveaway budget in October mightn't change that. It could even backfire. The ESRI has warned of the dangers of priming an already fast-growing economy and, politically, some voters may be wary about any perception that we're returning to auction politics.

The other key difference with 2002 is Enda Kenny still doesn't command the same authority as Ahern did in his pomp. He might be the only realistic option for Taoiseach, but that's really down to a lack of alternatives.

Despite giveaway budgets and rapidly falling unemployment, that could put a ceiling on Fine Gael's recovery in the polls. In 2002, Bertie Ahern came within a few hundred votes of an overall majority. Right now, Fine Gael strategists would probably take your hand off if you offered them 60 seats - and a minority coalition backed by a few 'Enda-pendents' - as the outcome of the next election.

It is worth remembering that 12 months from today the election will be over, if Enda Kenny opts for his Government to serve its full term.

The alternative is a November election after a giveaway Budget or even a little earlier in 2016. However, as far as the major coalition party is concerned, it probably doesn't matter a huge amount. Enda Kenny is pretty much certain to become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected. Barring calamity, it's impossible to think of any other outcome.

Fianna Fáil has its well publicised difficulties and will be doing well to win 35-40 seats. Sinn Féin, for all the opinion poll hype, would be delighted if it got 18pc of the vote in the next election. Neither party will have the seat numbers to come close to leading a government.

So that leaves Fine Gael. Traditionally, the party has bemoaned its bad luck when it came to election and economic cycles correlating. It had the misfortune to win in 1982 in the teeth of an economic recession and then hand over power just as international factors were helping to lift the economy. In 1997, it narrowly lost an election just as the economy was about to enter its Celtic Tiger phase.

But Enda Kenny is proving a lucky general. He dodged a bullet in 2007 when the FG/Labour campaign came unstuck in the final days of the campaign.

If he'd won then, how long would Kenny have lasted when the economic crash hit in 2008 and how damaged would the two parties be now?

Instead, it fell to a disgraced Fianna Fáil to invite in the Troika and do most of the austerity heavy lifting. Despite what the Coalition likes to claim, the worst of the crisis was over by the time it came to office (although, to be fair, it clearly wasn't plain sailing).

Certainly luck alone won't suffice come the general election. A lot, including the margin of a likely victory, will depend on the Taoiseach's performance between now and then.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' on

Irish Independent

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