Hugh O'Connell: 'By-election fears prompt ministers to mull 'having the whole thing''
No one in Fine Gael is happy about the four Dáil by-elections that have been pencilled in for Friday, November 29, except perhaps the candidates themselves.
Yes, it's cold, dark and not a great time of the year to be canvassing, but the more pressing political concern is that governments never do well in by-elections and that holding an unprecedented four in one day - in Cork North-Central, Dublin Fingal, Dublin Mid-West and Wexford - is fraught with risk.
Even the Taoiseach, who confirmed the date in the Dáil last week, told his party last month that they should be aiming to win only one seat. Many in the party suspect this could be in Wexford where the high-profile president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, Verona Murphy, is battling it out with former European election candidate Malcolm Byrne. Speaking about the south-east constituency, an optimistic Fine Gael minister declared: "We're not the favourites, that's the way I like it."
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But the nightmare scenario is that Fine Gael doesn't win any of the four seats and that on Saturday, November 30, Mr Varadkar will be forced to contend with a humiliating electoral defeat that would undermine his authority, make some question the party's direction under his leadership and consequently its chances of winning an historic third term.
Worse still it is possible - though unlikely - that Fianna Fáil could take all four seats up for grabs in the by-elections. Were this to happen, it would mean Micheál Martin's party would have 47 Dáil seats (not including the Ceann Comhairle) - just one fewer than Fine Gael, which is already having to contend with an exodus of half a dozen of its existing TDs at the next general election.
So instead Fine Gael ministers wonder whether, as one put it, "we might as well have the whole thing". The same minister said it's not good for a government to have elections hanging over them. "You're always better off to get it done," they added.
Brexit is, of course, the great fly in the ointment but with an extension now almost certain to be granted by the EU and Boris Johnson making a big push for an election in the UK, there is a belief that one could and should happen here given the increasingly fraught nature of Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil relations and the irrelevance of many Dáil votes as typified by the Votegate controversy.
Fianna Fáil is already on record as saying that only Brexit has prevented it from collapsing the confidence and supply deal.
Meanwhile, for Fine Gael there might never be a better time given yesterday's opinion poll put it well clear of the main opposition party and the Taoiseach is enjoying a rare boost in popularity off the back of his Brexit deal-making.
Votegate has undoubtedly damaged Fianna Fáil - though not as badly as Fine Gael hopes - and would be fresh in voters' minds if the country went to the polls within the next five weeks rather than in seven months' time.