Wednesday 29 January 2020

Jody Corcoran: How Kenny's election threat may yet backfire on Fine Gael

Public opinion is firmly against the Taoiseach, but he is still favourite to win, writes Jody Corcoran

Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny. When asked to choose between Enda Kenny or Micheal Martin for next Taoiseach, just 17pc of our poll respondents chose Kenny. 39pc chose Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Acting Taoiseach Enda Kenny. When asked to choose between Enda Kenny or Micheal Martin for next Taoiseach, just 17pc of our poll respondents chose Kenny. 39pc chose Martin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

By dint of the authority of the office he continues to hold, and his astuteness in making an early approach to Independent TDs, Enda Kenny is this weekend still favourite to form a Fine Gael-led minority government.

Today's opinion poll may change all that - but don't bet on it just yet.

When it comes to self-protection, and the practice of real politics, or what some would call pork-barrel politics, the acting Taoiseach in recent weeks has shown himself, yet again, to be a relative master.

His still imminent re-election as Taoiseach could be put down to a mixture of native cunning and naked threat. That said, the clock is officially ticking on his continued leadership of Fine Gael - not that he will worry about that at the moment, because this weekend he remains poised to become the first ever successively re-elected Fine Gael Taoiseach, which is no mean feat for a man who has been so soundly rejected by the electorate.

But when they digest the clear message of this poll, will the Independents baulk at Mr Kenny's best-laid plans?

Fine Gael won 50 seats in the election and is assured of 51 when the support of Michael Lowry is taken into account.

An assessment before this poll arrived indicated that Mr Kenny was set to secure the support of at least four of the 15 Independents 'in play' - enough to put him out of reach of Micheal Martin in the vote for Taoiseach.

These four are said to be Michael Fitzmaurice and Kevin 'Boxer' Moran of the Independent Alliance; Denis Naughten of the so-called 'Rural Independents' and Michael Healy-Rae, three of whom, Fitzmaurice, Naughten and Healy-Rae could reasonably expect to be appointed to the Cabinet.

The question now is whether even the lure of high office will overcome their awareness, contained in this poll that the tide of public opinion has decisively turned against Enda Kenny.

Until this poll, the possibility remained that Sean Canney and Danny Healy-Rae would also follow the other four into the arms of a Fine Gael-led minority government, and further Independents thereafter, but that must be in doubt now too. (Yes, the Healy-Raes may split, a development that would elevate 'cute hoorism' to a whole new level.)

After the Sunday Independent disclosed last weekend that Enda Kenny was failing to win over the Independents, and that the momentum was beginning to swing to Fianna Fail, the acting Taoiseach made his most decisive intervention in the entire process to date: he told the Independents, and Richard Bruton and Eoghan Murphy publicly re-iterated the threat, that Fine Gael would not support a Fianna Fail-led minority government, and that the Independents faced a stark choice - back Fine Gael or face another election.

However, our poll shows that a significant 43pc of Independent/other voters would prefer to see Micheal Martin as Taoiseach than Enda Kenny, a finding that will have a sobering effect of the final judgements yet to be made by those Independent TDs.

Leaving aside the fact that Mr Kenny would have his work cut out to convince the President of the merits of his election threat approach, and the audacity of his expectation of support from Fianna Fail in Opposition while ruling out a reciprocation if the numbers fell the other way, his intervention last week did turn out to have the anticipated salutary effect on those Independents, who above all others in Leinster House, fear another election.

But what's this? Our poll also shows that Fianna Fail has less reason to fear another election than Fine Gael: in fact, a quarter (25pc) of Fine Gael supporters are minded to vote another way in another election, mostly well-off Dublin voters, where the party performed relatively well in the recent election.

Until the publication of this poll, Enda Kenny had every reason to be pleased: it would be no mean feat to pull victory (of sorts) from such a heavy electoral defeat, although his success is bound to be short-lived.

He would still have to negotiate with Fianna Fail to stay in office, something which would test his undoubted political skills as never before.

But this week he will also find himself having to shore up the support of those Independents he had believed to be on his side.

In the medium term he will also have to contend with the Fine Gael leadership issue, let loose by the party's poor electoral performance, and which has been a running sore throughout the entire government formation process.

The acting agriculture minister, Simon Coveney has been noted to have separated himself from the herd in this process, the herd being Leo Varadkar and to a lesser extent Frances Fitzgerald. Kenny handed Varadkar and Fitzgerald the task of negotiating with smaller parties, the Social Democrats and the Greens, both of whom eventually walked away, while Coveney and Simon Harris were asked to handle direct negotiations with the Independents.

Varadkar, in particular, is known to be upset at the manner in which he has been spun against within Fine Gael: for example, he did not actually meet the Social Democrats before they withdrew. He was scheduled to discuss health issues and political reform with them, but they withdrew before they all actually got into a room, which may have been somewhat remiss on his part, but was more remiss of Enda Kenny, who actually did talk to the Social Democrats, who, in any event, were always destined for Opposition.

But still, Leo is feeling bruised by this rather shabby episode, and as a consequence his commitment to the negotiations process has been questioned; that said, as our poll shows, he still remains favourite among Fine Gael voters, and more so among the wider public at large, to lead Fine Gael.

But if Enda Kenny's supporters backed Simon Coveney in significant numbers, then the agriculture minister could win the contest.

In Fianna Fail, meanwhile, this poll will provide all the vindication Micheal Martin needs to justify his approach to these talks, an approach which is rooted in his belief that the authority of Enda Kenny and Fine Gael has been drained by the election result.

But the poll also throws up a conundrum for the party: while almost twice as many voters (14pc) would prefer a Fianna Fail-led minority government to a Fine Gael-led one (8pc), an equal proportion (22pc) is also receptive to a so-called 'grand coalition' between these two parties.

Within the small print, however, lies further justification for the Fianna Fail leader: while almost half (43pc) of Fine Gael supporters would opt for a grand coalition, that falls back significantly to a quarter (27pc) of Fianna Fail supporters.

Irrespective of the eventual outcome, when the dust finally settles on the government formation process, the afterglow of electoral success will still be there for Fianna Fail. However, the current process has also highlighted a level of uncertainty within the party as to how best to move forward.

A large proportion of the parliamentary party seem to be content to remain in Opposition, and to offer titular support to a Fine Gael-led minority government.

Fianna Fail has presented its position as the party magnanimously stepping back to allow Fine Gael negotiate first with the Independents, but in truth, the party's reticence can also be interpreted as it trying to have it both ways.

That said, its negotiators have kept a close eye on proceedings, and when it emerged last weekend that a majority of Independents would prefer to support Fianna Fail, the party finally moved to secure their backing.

This weekend the formation of the government remains a numbers game and Fianna Fail is still seven votes behind.

Those Independents most minded to support the party are the remainder of the so-called 'Rural Independents': Noel Grealish, Mattie McGrath and new TDs, Dr Michael Carty and Michael Collins. Add to that the support of Shane Ross and Finian McGrath and Fianna Fail would edge closer, but not close enough for Mr Martin to win more votes than Mr Kenny for Taoiseach.

This poll may yet turn out to be the game changer, however: add to those six both Sean Canney and John Halligan, and after that, all, or even some, of those others minded to vote for Enda Kenny, and it could be that this weekend the race has been thrown wide open again.

The trump cards played by Fianna Fail in the government formation process has been its deeper understanding of the issues concerning rural Ireland, in particular; as well as the promise of parliamentary reform and, not be to underestimated, its reinforcement to the Independents that the people have actually voted against the outgoing government, and Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

Today's poll would appear to confirm that - the people clearly prefer Mr Martin (39pc) to Mr Kenny (17pc) as Taoiseach.

The Independent TDs are also so aware, but from the outset had, and some continue to have, doubts as to the bona fides of Fianna Fail's intent to form a minority government.

Last week the Independents, as a whole, were also most anxious that the two main parties would talk, to set out the parameters of a minority government, and, in doing so, create a measure of stability to allow them some comfort in their decision.

But when Enda Kenny intervened to announce that Fine Gael would not support a Fianna Fail-led minority government, the tentative movement of the Independents towards Fianna Fail came to a halt.

These events are still live this weekend, of course, and in all likelihood will still be after the second vote for Taoiseach on Wednesday. Be advised, though, there is still some way to go before a government is formed.

Fianna Fail's anger at Kenny's intervention does not bode well for the duration of a prospective Fine Gael-led minority government, if that is what will eventually emerge, but that anger will have to be tempered. A deal must be done.

However, this weekend the prospect is more real than before that the Independents will rally to the Fianna Fail flag and that Mr Kenny will come under pressure to withdraw his threat not to support a Fianna Fail-led minority government.

If he refuses to do so, and in my view he will resolutely refuse, then a new election will loom larger than before.

This poll also tells us that the electorate do not necessarily want a new election: the headline figure states that 27pc do not mind heading to the polling booths again, but a combined 44pc want either a grand coalition or a form of minority government, preferably a Fianna Fail-led one.

However, it is to be an election, that is, if Mr Kenny acts on his threat, then Fine Gael, under his leadership, and the Independents themselves, will have most to lose.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss