Monday 21 October 2019

Jody Corcoran: Is this as good as it gets? For the first time, Varadkar is vulnerable

As a new wariness sets in, the public has no desire to rock the boat or contemplate an election, writes Jody Corcoran

Leo Varadkar. Photo: Irish Independent
Leo Varadkar. Photo: Irish Independent
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The most hackneyed phrase in politics, when it comes to general elections anyway, is that 'it's the economy, stupid'.

That's never the full story, though, is it? The state of the economy, although important in that ultimately it determines the amount of money in your pocket, can be a blunt instrument to detect what people really feel.

The outcome of close elections most times turns on a far more delicate concept: not just the economy or even the amount of cash in your pocket, rather how those realities and others - health and housing - affect the mood of the nation.

That's the real pay dirt come election time - the mood of the nation. And it is remarkable how often politicians judge the mood wrongly.

Of all of the opinion polls we take, the annual Kantar Millward Brown consumer sentiment poll reveals most.

A deep-dive into today's poll proves to be no exception.

To analyse this consumer poll in political terms, it is necessary to go back a few years to the same poll and a front page headline in this newspaper on November 8, 2015; and from there forward to another headline based on the same poll on August 30, 2017.

Let us take the 2015 headline first, and the state of affairs in national politics around then. It read: 'A new dawn'.

Enda Kenny was Taoiseach at the time, and as it turned out, we were three months from the last General Election.

Back then, Kenny was on the horns of a dilemma as to when to call the election. It is said he wanted to go then, after the Budget that year, as did then Finance Minister Michael Noonan, but that a desperate Labour Party and Joan Burton wanted to wait for budget cash to land in pockets - and for a miracle to show up.

Leo Varadkar is currently weighing up when to go to the country - and he is said to be trying to provoke Fianna Fail into pulling the plug on the confidence and supply deal.

And there would be good reason to blame somebody else for causing an election, as today's opinion poll reveals. More of which later...

Varadkar is also said to be listening to the urgings of his Young Turk ministers, Eoghan Murphy and Simon Harris, in particular - both presiding in the departments of Housing and Health.

Not because they seek a mandate to unshackle themselves, to allow them to deal unhindered with the critical issues facing their departments and the country, but because they want to move on as quickly as possible so as not to blot their political careers longer than is strictly necessary.

Leaving aside the shallowness of such politics, the question now is - will Leo Varadkar misread the mood of the country again, and as egregiously as did Enda Kenny in 2015?

Elsewhere in a soon-to-be published biography (an extract of which we publish this weekend), Varadkar somewhat self-servingly lets it be known that he was with Kenny and Noonan in 2015, that he wanted to go to the country after the Budget in October that year.

More than that, it is reported that he apparently dissed, and in his constituency dumped, the badly misjudged Fine Gael 'Keep the recovery going' election slogan in that campaign, coming up instead with a 'Bringing the recovery to every home' shtick.

The rest is history…

Or is it? Today's opinion poll hints at a mood which tells us that the recovery, the fastest growing economy in Europe, strong GDP, and all of the rest of it, has still not quite struck a chord in every, or even enough, households. Herein lays the essence of a mood that Varadkar will misjudge at his peril.

The point about the 'New dawn' headline was that it told how a turning point in the public mood had been reached. For the first time since the catastrophic crash, the green and red chart lines of optimism and pessimism had crossed.

Optimism was in the ascendancy. Voters were said to be at their most optimistic since the crash. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition was at a three-year high in terms of popularity. But then they got hammered in the election three months later.

Now let us forward to April last year. We ran a front page headline on the same annual poll which read: 'Nation's mood at a 28-year high.'

And it was. And it was remarkable.

Coming off the back of a decade of deep recession, there was a real sense of optimism again, an energy, a feeling of opportunity and excitement for the future.

Not only had the green and red lines crossed, but the green line of optimism was steaming ahead.

The poll told of a surge in confidence on personal finances, of how anger had markedly decreased and that more that three-quarters were upbeat again.

Two months later, Varadkar was elected leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach.

Since then his personal popularity ratings have soared, as have Fine Gael's and the Government's, all on a relentless upward trajectory.

Until recently, that is.

A Kantar Millward Brown poll last April showed that Varadkar's personal satisfaction ratings, while relatively high, had decreased for the first time since his elevation; that dissatisfaction with him had increased by five points; and satisfaction with Fine Gael and the Government had also decreased (or at least peaked). The Taoiseach's honeymoon was over, I wrote at the time.

Now let us turn to today's "mood of the country" poll.

At a minimum, we can say that the upward trajectory of unbridled optimism has stalled. A new reality has hit. The green and red lines have started to close again, a little, but notably and enough to be beyond any doubt.

This new caution, shall we say, happens to coincide with the end of Varadkar's extended honeymoon period.

There is a warning sound there for the Taoiseach, but is he attuned enough to hear it?

For the first time under his leadership, I would say, it has suddenly become reasonable to contemplate a Fine Gael defeat in the next election.

Is there a stand-out finding in this poll which would tell us that? Perhaps it could be that since April last year, there has been an eight-point drop in the percentage of people who think the economy will improve next year.

That's some drop. What drives the fear? The anxiety of Brexit, perhaps…

But then there is a 14-point increase in the percentage who think the economy is moving in the right direction.

It may seem that there is a contradiction between these two findings - but really, there is a correlation: a new pragmatism has set in.

The key to unlocking this poll, however, lays in its subtlety: it whispers, rather than shouts, of the slow, inevitable dread of the morning-after optimism, of summer giving way to autumn and of the long, dark winter nights ahead.

The poll detects an underlying sense of caution among the public - not necessarily just wariness, but also of weariness with their lot.

People do not feel they will be better off next year, more like the same, and the same is not great, sometimes not even good.

There is a sense that the recovery remains uneven and unfair, with Dublin versus the rest of the country more pronounced than ever.

Also that people feel more resentful at being ripped-off, with the price of things these days; that they are paying more to live the same while not necessarily bringing in more, or enough to keep up with ever increasing demands.

It is more than that though: there is no real sense of joie de vivre to be detected. It is as if the national mood has been deflated.

Fewer than last year will take holidays next year, or eat out or even go to the pub as often. Small pleasures…

Maybe it is that they are too busy trying to save a deposit for a house that seems to be eternally out of their reach.

There is also a sense, however, that people do not necessarily want to rock the boat.

There is little indication that they want an election, or that they are even thinking about one. There is a 'steady as she goes' attitude out there.

Admirable stoicism, I would say, which may still be enough to see Varadkar over the line at the next election whenever that may be.

But woe betide any politician that causes an election without just cause, provocation or otherwise. 

There is a sense also that, for many people, this may be as good as it is going to get, and that underlying that feeling, there is a residue of disappointment.

That while economic upwards growth rates and falling unemployment are good, the recovery has still not, as Varadkar might put it, come to people's doors, or certainly not in a way that many had expected by now after almost eight years of Fine Gael in Government.

Micheal Martin might be inclined to wonder how people will feel after nine years. Or even 10.

And with the uncertainty of Brexit on the horizon, and people's anxiety to the fore, he would be wise to read this poll and extend confidence and supply for a year.

This weekend, it is Leo Varadkar who is firmly on the horns of a dilemma: Go to the country now and annoy the public who do not want to risk an election; or wait for a year, by which time that annoyance may have hardened into something approaching anger.

Sunday Independent

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