Thursday 19 September 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'The tide is starting to go out on Varadkar'

The Taoiseach's tax cut pledge has fallen flat with the public who want his Government to focus on improved public services, writes Jody Corcoran

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Arthur Carron
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Arthur Carron
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Let us leave aside for a moment Micheal Martin's statement that Fianna Fail's continued support of the Fine Gael-led minority Government was a decision taken in the "national interest" at a time of Brexit, other than to state at the outset that the decision is clearly in the national interest.

And let us look instead at other political considerations behind the decision, while accepting Mr Martin's bona fides that such considerations are, or would be, secondary to the national interest.

Last April, I said the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, had peaked in terms of personal popularity and that, in effect, the honeymoon period was over for Fine Gael, its leader and the Government he led.

That analysis was based on our opinion poll at the time which, among other things, revealed that Mr Varadkar's soaraway satisfaction rating had fallen for the first time since he was elected Taoiseach, from 58pc to 56pc; and in tandem, that Fine Gael's rating had fallen from 36pc to 34pc, and similarly that there had been a noticeable increase in dissatisfaction with the Government.

Since then, nobody has shared that analysis: the opposite, in fact. The widespread view is that Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael are virtually unassailable, and can be expected to romp home at the next election, which is now not expected to be held until early 2020, after Mr Martin's announcement last week.

However, I continue to hold the opposite view, more firmly than ever after this weekend's poll which, in fact, leads me to predict that Fine Gael is now at serious risk of losing the next general election and, it follows, that Fianna Fail could win, events between now and then notwithstanding, thanks in part to Martin's "national interest" appeal to the still hesitant middle-classes.

At year's end, there is a mere five points between the two main political parties in the State, Fine Gael on 32pc and Fianna Fail on 27pc, which, margin of error factored in, could be virtually nothing in the white heat of a general election campaign.

Here's why I believe Fine Gael is at risk of losing the election: since last April we also published a Kantar Millward Brown poll, in August, which was aimed at gauging the mood of the nation. And for the first time since the country emerged from the economic collapse, it showed that the red and green lines of optimism and pessimism were starting to converge again.

At the time I wrote: "The key to unlocking this poll, however, lies 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."

That poll detected an underlying sense of caution among the public - not necessarily just of wariness, but also of weariness with their lot. "There is a warning sound there for the Taoiseach, but is he attuned enough to hear it?" it was stated at the time.

At the time, it may have been that the caution was related to the perils of Brexit. Undoubtedly to an extent it is - doubly so now - but there is little doubt that there is also something else going on out there among the public that could be said to be related to a general and widespread sense of disenchantment. What we might call "boom envy", or a sense of exclusion from the recovery.

Now let us turn to today's poll and assess whether these snapshots in time are developing into a trend, and whether today's findings could inform Mr Martin's decision to postpone, for a year, a general election - not that that was a consideration of his, of course.

Today's poll shows that Fine Gael's support has fallen a further two points to 32pc, still a respectable figure you might argue, even if it is four points below Fine Gael's standing last February.

It also shows us dissatisfaction with the Government has risen three points since April to 49pc and its satisfaction rating has fallen a considerable five points to 43pc.

Now add to this the personal satisfaction rating of Leo Varadkar, in this poll, down a further whopping seven points to 49pc since April, which sees him remain the country's most popular political party leader, but still…

There is a trend here, more than a trend - by now, I would argue, it is an underlying momentum which tells us not only that Leo Varadkar's honeymoon period is over, or that he has peaked in terms of popularity, but that the tide may be about to turn, and go out, on Fine Gael, the Taoiseach and the Government he leads, if it has not done so already.

There are few more aware of this than Leo Varadkar himself, I would suggest. He sometimes gives the impression he may have come to believe his own publicity, but in the privacy of his own thoughts must know there has been a perceptible change in attitude towards him among the public.

This, I would also suggest, is one of the reasons he took a bold, some would say reckless, decision to announce grandstanding tax-cutting measures at the recent Fine Gael annual conference, in effect that he would increase the level at which people pay the top rate of tax to €50,000 for a single person and to €100,000 for a married couple.

In a stroke, it was the most significant political move of the year, a defining moment, at a time when the prospect of an election was on the cards before Micheal Martin's announcement last week.

Now let us turn to today's poll again: We asked what the public thought the Government should focus on over the next two years, more tax cuts or improved public services?

We should pause here to note what we did not ask: we did not ask whether people favoured tax cuts over increased public spending. In other words, it does not follow that increased public spending always delivers improved public services.

The poll found that a massive 64pc felt the Government should "focus" on improved public service, more than double the percentage which felt it should "focus" on tax cuts (30pc), with 6pc who did not know or with no opinion.

In my view, the finding is significant. The last election was won and lost on the issue of "fairness" in society. As I have argued before, the next will be won and lost on the issue of public services that function properly as intended. That does not necessarily mean throwing money at the problem, which this Government and others have tended to do, but rather to identify and correct other vested interest problems which work against a properly functioning health service, for example, or a housing system that meets demand across all levels of society.

In other words, this poll shows that Leo Varadkar's tax cut pledge may be a distraction from, or is not sophisticated enough to ease, the general and widespread level of disenchantment that demands decency and properly functioning services across all levels of society.

Herein lays an opportunity on which Micheal Martin and Fianna Fail are hoping to capitalise over the next 12 months.

That is, of course, if he and the party he leads are not blamed for keeping an increasingly unpopular and ineffectual Government in power for another year.

Sunday Independent

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