Saturday 19 October 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'Leo down but not out and now has a big call to make'

The local elections brought good news for Fianna Fail and the Greens, while the Taoiseach ponders going to the polls in September

GALLING: Leo Varadkar may have no choice but to allow the leader of the Opposition dictate the timing of the next election. Photo: PA Wire.
GALLING: Leo Varadkar may have no choice but to allow the leader of the Opposition dictate the timing of the next election. Photo: PA Wire.
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The European and local election results present Leo Varadkar with an immediate dilemma - when to call a general election? As the votes were being counted, the Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader began to publicly speculate on the issue, his intention, presumably, to keep open his options and the rest of us guessing.

All things considered, he would be better off to go for an early election, this September, immediately when the Dail resumes after its summer recess or shortly after the Budget in October at the very latest. Ah, but events, dear boy…

There will be a number of factors for the Taoiseach to consider, not least the outcome of the Tory leadership contest in the UK, the prospect of an election in the UK, how the Brexit negotiations progress when resumed, and, at what point it will look as though a further extension to the Brexit deadline is required.

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In short, events in the UK over the coming weeks and months will primarily determine when the election is called here.

However, Varadkar will also be weighing up other matters until then, not least how to stem, or at least slow the flow of support from Fine Gael, a difficult but not impossible task.

Indeed, it is my analysis that the main Government party performed better than expected, all things considered, in these elections.

Fianna Fail will be cock-a-hoop with the local election results, as the best indication of the outcome of a general election.

Micheal Martin's party will now be looking forward to that election with some confidence, but for its own good, it should not be over-confident. Fine Gael is far from down and out.

Anyway, now that everybody has caught up with what we told you a year ago, that Fine Gael was in decline, we will look forward to what might happen next.

The current narrative is that Fine Gael is in trouble: the shock seems to be that the party has fallen suddenly from mid-30pc support in several opinion polls to mid-20pc of the vote in the real elections.

As regular readers will suspect, I am neither shocked nor surprised at the Fine Gael local election result, having factored it in long since. Hence, for me, Fine Gael actually did well in these elections.

Indeed, my only surprise was that the party managed to end up less than two points behind Fianna Fail in percentage share of the vote.

At two events in Dublin in recent months, where I bumped into Leo Varadkar and we discussed the matter, I predicted that Fine Gael would end up close to 5pc behind in the local elections. He did not expect that at the time, although has duly acknowledged that analysis since last weekend.

That said, support for Fine Gael is going only one way - downward. There is little or nothing Varadkar can do now to restore the party's fortunes to levels enjoyed shortly after his election as leader, and the honeymoon he had up to June last year. For Varadkar, the name of the game now is damage limitation. So, get ready for a summer of 'spin'.

In that regard, he can still be relatively successful. Put it like this: I do not expect Fine Gael to fall much lower than its current level. The challenge now is to shore up that support, get to a general election as quickly and reasonably as possible, and manage the party's vote well in that election.

A major consideration for Varadkar will be the raft of Green Party councillors elected.

While we knew the Greens were back, not many anticipated the Green ''wave" and many were misled as to its extent by a Red C exit poll for RTE, whose polling methods I have questioned here before.

That said, the Greens still performed well. In the main, its councillors were elected in areas where Fine Gael would have otherwise expected to do well.

Indeed, the scale of the Greens' victory also came as a surprise to the Greens themselves, several newly elected councillors included.

Varadkar will be mindful not to allow those councillors time to bed into their constituencies, a few among them in the more comfortable areas around south Dublin to present a real challenge to Fine Gael in a general election. So, for this reason, too, the Taoiseach needs a general election sooner rather than later.

He will also be aware that once the media (and public) see you as a loser (politically), they tend to turn on you and the outward flow of support may quicken as a consequence.

While the Maria Bailey controversy had, in my view, minimal impact on the eventual outcome of the elections, these things do tend to have a perpetuating momentum.

The longer this Government continues, the more we can expect other controversies involving Fine Gael TDs and candidates to feed into a general impression of arrogance and privilege associated with the party.

This is another reason Leo Varadkar will be anxious to get to the polls sooner rather than later.

However, he is hamstrung by Brexit, and finds himself in a difficult position - somewhat of his own making.

He can only hope the new Tory leader will either a) go to the country shortly after summer or b) engage with the EU to an extent that a further extension of the Brexit deadline quickly seems inevitable.

In either scenario, the Taoiseach will be able to present a plausible explanation rather than an excuse for an early election here.

Indeed, Fine Gael might expect to do quite well should the election here coincide with one in the UK - in effect, two Brexit-themed elections.

Of course, these things seldom work out like that - ask Theresa May who blew her majority on the back of an intended Brexit election and never recovered.

So Leo should be careful what he wishes for…

Notwithstanding the smiles of the faces of Fianna Fail supporters this weekend, the path to power is not without risk for Micheal Martin.

Fianna Fail did well in these elections, particularly the locals, but also lost momentum to the Greens, Social Democrats and Labour to an extent.

The process of rebuilding after the meltdown in 2011 has been slow and difficult, but is now showing good progress, albeit still somewhat restrained in parts.

That said, these elections did represent a valuable Fianna Fail breakthrough in decent working class Dublin neighbourhoods, at the expense of Sinn Fein, whose collapse has deep-rooted causes which would require a separate article to analyse.

However, Fianna Fail's reach into the more affluent middle class suburbs remains subdued and a cause for concern for the party. I imagine a spell in Government will lead to such a breakthrough.

A decade on, while the consequences of the crash may have receded for many, the apportioned blame has not entirely. Well, the Greens are forgiven; Fianna Fail to some but not the same extent.

Fianna Fail's relative lack of success in the European elections can be also put down to that meltdown, in my view, on account that the political careers of several strong prospective candidates ended then.

In any event, Micheal Martin will be satisfied to sit back now and allow Fine Gael, now eight years in office, to bleed out some more.

So, he will be minded to continue to adopt a statesman role on Brexit, and honour his man-of-his-word position on extending confidence and supply until after the Budget process early into the New Year.

As Brexit transpires, it may turn out that Varadkar will have no choice but to allow the leader of the Opposition dictate the timing of the election. How galling. In such circumstances, we should not rule out a rush of blood to the Leo head.

As to the outcome of the election, I see no reason to change my view: a centre-left alliance of the Greens, Social Democrats and Labour (with some Independents), with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail on the other side of the Cabinet table, more likely Fianna Fail.

Much will depend on which of these alternative voters believe looks new, fresh and like winning, and will provide the most stable Government.

And sure, after eight years in power, wouldn't Fine Gael be duty bound to honour another confidence and supply deal?

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