Saturday 19 October 2019

Colette Browne: 'Until Varadkar focuses on what matters most - health and housing - he will be toast at the next election'

Regrettably for Mr Varadkar and his Government, it is impossible to spin their way out of mismanaging major projects, the housing crisis and a succession of foot-in-mouth gaffes from people who are supposed to be media trained to within an inch of their lives. Photo: PA
Regrettably for Mr Varadkar and his Government, it is impossible to spin their way out of mismanaging major projects, the housing crisis and a succession of foot-in-mouth gaffes from people who are supposed to be media trained to within an inch of their lives. Photo: PA
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

'He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy" - the quip from Monty Python classic 'Life of Brian' could serve as a pithy critique of Leo Varadkar's inflated reputation as a vote winner following Fine Gael's lacklustre performance in the local elections.

Where did it all go wrong for Fine Gael? For two years, a succession of opinion polls had the party topping 30pc with Fianna Fáil trailing far behind. In Dublin, polls had put the party's support even higher, with a Red C survey in April suggesting support of 37pc.

The first real sign of cracks were beginning to appear earlier this month, when Red C placed the party at 28pc nationally and 26pc in the capital.

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In the event, the local election results were much worse. Nationally, the party stands at 25.3pc, with Fianna Fáil ahead on 26.9pc, but it is in Dublin where the real rot has set in.

Among the city's four local authorities, the highest share Fine Gael could muster was 27.3pc in Dún Laoghaire Rathdown while it sank to just 13.7pc in Dublin City, 17.5pc in South Dublin and 17pc in Fingal.

Given the party secured 36pc of the vote in Dún Laoghaire and 30.6pc in Dublin Rathdown in the 2016 general election, the slide should cause some significant concern.

As it stands, Fianna Fáil is outpolling its rivals in every local authority area in the capital bar one. If Dublin is supposed to be a Fine Gael stronghold, it's time to man the walls and prepare for battle.

Mr Varadkar has described the party's performance in the local elections as "disappointing", which is something of an understatement given he recently publicly stated his goal was to win an additional 50 seats and become the largest party in local government.

On one level, it's easy to see where the Taoiseach's misplaced optimism came from. In 2014, it secured 24pc of the vote and lost 105 seats when anger at spending cuts and tax increases boiled over during the water charges campaign.

This time, with no commensurate national protest movement and the economy apparently booming, the party expected a dividend. In short, it became complacent.

Fine Gael has long traded on its reputation for fiscal rectitude, trenchantly criticising Fianna Fáil for its "if I have it I'll spend it" attitude during the boom years.

But when it was revealed the children's hospital would cost €1.4bn and counting, the reaction was a collective shrug of the shoulders. Health Minister Simon Harris told an Oireachtas committee the revised cost was "reasonable" - despite a budget-busting €450m rise in one year.

Even now, no one in government can say with any degree of precision how much the project will ultimately cost, with the sky appearing to be the limit.

A similarly ambivalent attitude to budgets was evident in the approach to the national broadband plan, with the final tender price of €3bn representing multiples of the initial budget of just €500m.

Dare to criticise these eye-popping figures and defensive Fine Gael ministers accuse critics of wanting to deny sick children a world-class hospital or rural dwellers a reliable internet connection.

The fact these things could have been delivered without breaking the national bank is never addressed.

Value for money is a concept lost by a Government burning through public money with wild abandon.

How are the public expected to have confidence in Fine Gael's ability to deliver on its capital investment plan, contained in Ireland 2040, when all of its prestige projects are now hugely over-budget?

The children's hospital and broadband garner most of the headlines, but an inability to estimate the cost of these projects correctly will have implications for capital investment all over the country for the foreseeable future.

When the reality of delayed, deferred and cancelled capital projects becomes apparent in years to come, public anger at the Government's profligacy will only increase.

An inability to make progress on housing, as homelessness continues its inexorable rise and rents continue to soar, represents the single biggest threat to the party's electoral fortunes.

Having published its first housing plan in 2014, the public are still being told five years later that the reason progress is not being made is because houses take a long time to build. This patronising, flippant response to a crisis engulfing an entire generation of young people will reap a whirlwind for this Government.

The inability of Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy to even empathise with those who are despairing as a result of the housing fiasco is quite something.

His widely ridiculed comments that young people should view shoebox co-living en suite rooms in Dublin at €1,300 per month as an "exciting" choice beggars belief. Until relatively recently, €1,300 was sufficient to rent a two-bed apartment.

The prospect of owning or renting your own home, without sharing kitchen facilities with hordes of other people, is now deemed too ambitious a dream for this generation of young people.

Mr Murphy's gaffe, which dominated headlines for days in advance of the election, was not the only own goal from a Fine Gael TD that did serious damage.

The party has spent months slamming personal injuries awards and insurance hikes, so the revelation Maria Bailey was suing a hotel after she fell from a swing on a night out was devastating.

While every citizen has a right to take a civil action, the inability of Fine Gael to address the drip-feed of information, coming from this newspaper, was spectacularly inept.

The failure of Mr Varadkar to speak with Ms Bailey before she gave her disastrous interview to RTÉ on Monday, more than one week after the story first hit the headlines, is inexplicable.

Given the party's obsession with public relations, the biggest mystery is that its members appear singularly useless at communicating with the public.

Regrettably for Mr Varadkar and his Government, it is impossible to spin their way out of mismanaging major projects, the housing crisis and a succession of foot-in-mouth gaffes from people who are supposed to be media trained to within an inch of their lives.

If the party wants to avoid a return to the opposition benches after the next election, it will have to spend less time spinning its own mediocre performance and more getting results on issues that actually matter to people - particularly health and housing.

Irish Independent

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