Saturday 17 August 2019

Hugh O'Connell: 'Leo must use Dáil recess to tackle doubts creeping in'


Upheaval: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar would be wise to use this time to tackle issues and shore up his position
Upheaval: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar would be wise to use this time to tackle issues and shore up his position
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

Aside from Brexit, the main reason why Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has not called a general election is his very real fear that he will not be returned to office if he does.

To be fair to Mr Varadkar, it's a weakness that afflicts all taoisigh. They are loathe to go before the people unless they have a strong sense that they will be returned. It's a calculation that if wrong leaves you languishing in opposition. Just ask any of the Fianna Fáil TDs returned after its 2011 massacre how miserable that can be.

And certainly opposition was not what Mr Varadkar envisaged when he took over as Fine Gael leader two years ago. But it has become a distinct possibility in recent months owing to the myriad crises and controversies that have damaged the Government and his party.

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For Mr Varadkar, the fear of losing high office is particularly acute given his entire political career - everything he did and didn't do and everything he said and didn't say (though there weren't many of these) - was geared towards this moment when he occupies the highest political office in the State and all the power and trappings that it brings.

For those below him in Fine Gael, there are various views as to when the next general election should be - or should have been.

Some believe it was an error not to have gone last autumn, while one minister confides that the Taoiseach shouldn't come back after the summer recess and instead go to the country in September. But there is little reason to expect this will happen because the risk that Fine Gael will not be returned to power is greater now than at any point in Mr Varadkar's term so far.

His popularity, all polling indicates, is on the wane.

For years voters were intrigued by the idea of Leo Varadkar and liked him because he said things other politicians didn't. Leo Varadkar as 'trouble-making cabinet minister who said it as he saw it' had a certain mystique.

Varadkar as Taoiseach has allowed himself to be defined by his opponents: obsessed with spin and image and prone to immature statements like his 'sinning priest' gaffe last week.

With unemployment at just over 4pc and the economy continuing to grow at a swift pace, Fine Gael should arguably be in the same position as Fianna Fáil was heading into the 2007 General Election. Back then, despite a decade in office, Bertie Ahern's party was trusted (incorrectly, it transpired) on the economy and as a result saw off the challenge of the Fine Gael-Labour alternative led by Enda Kenny.

But even with a booming economy, Fine Gael is shipping serious political damage as a result of the overspend in the National Children's Hospital, the questionable €3bn outlay on rural broadband, the seemingly unsolvable housing crisis, and the perpetual crisis in health.

That's without even factoring in a growing number of damaging issues from within Fine Gael itself.

The Maria Bailey saga is chief among them and was undoubtedly a factor in the below-expectations performance in the local elections.

But then there are allegations of bullying in its Waterford branch. Last week, the party also confirmed it was investigating allegations of a racist slur being uttered about one of its former councillors at a party meeting in Meath.

Mr Varadkar must resolve these internal issues as soon as possible. Swift, decisive and firm action on the Bailey issue should happen this week and put to bed a saga that has dragged on for two months and caused an awful lot of damage to Fine Gael among the general public.

He must then set about regaining the initiative politically. Hammering Fianna Fáil for past sins and taking petulant pot-shots at its leader during Dáil exchanges will not cut it.

Instead, Mr Varadkar must find a way to argue why Fine Gael, having been eight years in office, deserves an opportunity to continue for several more years after the next election.

It's no easy task given voters usually aren't well-disposed to parties in office as long as Fine Gael has been.

But a vision that extends beyond promises of tax cuts is needed. It should be one that focuses on reducing the cost of living for working families and those who are trying to save to buy a home.

An extension of the 'help-to-buy' grant, which the Taoiseach signalled in the Dáil last week, is a good start.

Ultimately, Mr Varadkar's future may be defined by Brexit. No one really knows what Boris Johnson's intentions are once he, more than likely, becomes UK prime minister but Mr Varadkar must find out as soon as possible in order to defend Ireland's interests.

A strong stance on Brexit has delivered a poll boost for the Taoiseach in the past and it may yet do so again.

But it alone cannot be relied upon to boost his poll numbers.

Instead, Mr Varadkar should use the summer break away from Leinster House and the political bubble that he craves to plot a way to regain public support and dispel growing doubts in his own party about the wisdom of making him leader two years ago.

Irish Independent

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