Wednesday 20 March 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'Who will move first? Varadkar and Martin ponder right time for election'

The end of the current Government is nigh - but timing is everything for Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, says Jody Corcoran

Sooner or later, either Leo Varadkar or Micheal Martin will have to take the decision both have been putting off for some months now - to end this Government.

And it looks more and more likely that the decision will be taken by one or the other sooner rather than later, possibly within weeks.

Both are weighing up the optimal moment to go to the country, with windows of opportunity opening and closing sometimes in a matter of days if not hours.

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So let us look at the bigger picture of the last three years and some of the factors which will inform their decision to eventually pull the plug.

There is seldom, if ever, a perfect moment to call an election. More often, it is a choice of the least worst, or moment when more stars than not have aligned before the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

For Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, it could be argued that moment has passed, roughly last autumn. He will get another opportunity, however, shortly after clarity has been brought to Brexit in March. And he will be sorely tempted to take it this time, particularly if the outcome is relatively positive.

For all the criticism he has shipped for propping up this Government, mostly from members of his own party, the optimal moment has not yet arrived for Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, but will soon.

Well, that's not strictly true. The moment may have been when Enda Kenny was Taoiseach, about a year into the lifetime of this confidence and supply administration, at the time of several crises related to the Garda, when Fianna Fail was polling comfortably ahead of Fine Gael. Then again, the electorate would not have rewarded Fianna Fail at the time for being so opportunistic.

All things considered, Martin was wiser to wait it out, to, as he said back then, implement an uncertain mandate given by the electorate this time three years ago, in February 2016.

Long story short, it is my analysis that Martin's optimal moment will be this June, or no later than September, but he will probably honour his commitment to pass another budget. This analysis is contingent on the outcome of Brexit, of course, which is still unknown.

The tide began to turn on Varadkar last June. We have noted that mood change here before, when we declared his honeymoon period as leader to be over.

Before then, Varadkar was the most popular leader for some time, buoyed by his Brexit rhetoric, and compared by many to Bertie Ahern in terms of his peak popularity.

The opinion polls have held up reasonably well for Fine Gael since then, in that the party's popularity is still in the 30pc range, which encourages the Taoiseach, judging by his remarks to the party faithful on Friday, when he asked: "I wonder, if FF was 5-10pc ahead in the polls for the last year, would they be quite so willing to facilitate us?"

However, Fine Gael's popularity is in the low 30s and, in my view, could more accurately be in the high 20s.

In other words, nobody is now talking about Fine Gael cruising to a comfortable election victory next time, as some were during a brief moment earlier last year when the party, in upward trajectory, hit 36pc in several opinion polls.

More telling, however, has been a sharp decline in Varadkar's personal satisfaction rating from, give or take, 56pc at one stage last year to around 39pc now, and falling. To put it another way, and as Micheal Martin has privately suggested to his parliamentary party, the shine, while not entirely gone, is going off Leo.

As it happens, this is coinciding with a general mood of growing anxiety among the electorate, not exclusively Brexit-related, with other issues involved such as housing, the health service and concerns about safe-hand competence in general.

At a deeper level, people have become more than used to Varadkar. For want of a better word, his exoticism has diminished. It is no longer a novelty to see him well turned out on the international stage. He has become just another politician.

Varadkar knows this. Indeed, I know for a fact that he has told friends his optimal moment may have passed. In a way, he was boxed in by Brexit; in another, he has actually painted himself into a corner from which he is struggling to get out.

The Brexit withdrawal agreement could have been done and dusted before now had Varadkar shown more flexibility, or, as I argued recently, had he been more prepared to find a compromise on the issues which have bedevilled the process.

As the tide turned on his fortunes last summer, he sought to force the situation, putting it up to Martin to extend confidence and supply by two years, knowing well that such a move would cause great difficulty for the Fianna Fail leader. At the time, Fine Gael TDs were also liberally sprinkling political abuse in the direction of Fianna Fail.

In reaction, Martin argued with merit that Varadkar was attempting to destabilise his own Government.

The Fine Gael leader was hoping that Fianna Fail would withdraw and be blamed for causing an election, leaving Varadkar with no outward option but to seek an enhanced mandate that he would have argued was needed at such a critical time.

However, for all of Varadkar's undoubted political acumen, Martin tactically out-played him at the turn of the year, presenting himself in the process as a responsible leader at a time of undoubted anxiety over Brexit.

The Fianna Fail leader subsequently offered to extend confidence and supply for another budget, an offer Varadkar could hardly refuse.

In effect, the arrangement has further boxed in Varadkar as Brexit looks more uncertain, when questions are being asked about his strategy and when his fading glow is gathering pace anyway, with, for good measure, a small implosion under way under new leadership in Sinn Fein.

All of this has not come without a cost for the Fianna Fail leader, however. He is facing growing, indeed open, dissent within his parliamentary party and among the grassroots, who are frankly done with propping up this Government.

Perversely, there may be some good within the agitation, which may be lost on many of those attending the Fianna Fail Ard Fheis this weekend. The unstated reality is that the party's angst coincides with local and European election conventions well under way around the country. The ants are coming out of their ant holes, as one Fianna Failer somewhat uncharitably put it to me last week. However, it tells of an active party on the ground, of the party machine of old oiling up again, to a relative extent, and of a membership passionate and engaged.

Here is the reality, however: there was not one person at the Citywest Hotel this weekend who will vote for Fine Gael in the next election.

Micheal Martin still has work to do to broaden the party's appeal. He needs to win back the trust of voters who have not supported Fianna Fail in a decade, not to mention a new generation who have come of age since, and who care, or know, little about Dev or Collins, and next to nothing about Sinn Fein's associations in the past.

In other words, many of the Fianna Fail grassroots of yore have yet to get their heads around the new political dispensation, which showed significant support for repealing the Eighth Amendment, for example.

So Micheal Martin is still fighting an uphill, possibly losing, battle in this regard.

That said, the next move is Varadkar's. Should a soft Brexit be achieved, and Border avoided, he will be sorely tempted to seek a mandate to negotiate a new trade deal; should Brexit be deferred for three months, he may be similarly tempted, although with uncertainty still abounding, maybe not so much; should it be deferred for a year or so, he will be tempted to take his chances; but should there by a no-deal Brexit, with a Border returned, Varadkar is doomed.

All things considered, it is in his interests to achieve a reasonable Brexit and go to the country sooner rather than later, before the public realises such a deal may not be so reasonable after all, and before public sector unrest is further roused after the nurses vote to support Paschal Donohoe's compromise deal.

In short, Varadkar is looking at little but domestic gloom over the remainder of the lifetime of this Government, enough to turn his fading shine to muddy grey ordinariness.

The question Martin must ask himself is at what point does his continued support of this Government turn into the law of diminishing returns.

He has offered another budget, but a combination of factors, such as the effects of Brexit, industrial unrest and outright opposition within his own ranks, dictate that this Government will really struggle to continue until then.

Martin will look to the European and local elections in May to ascertain Fianna Fail's true level of support and instinctively try to keep the show on the road for a while longer, possibly even honouring his word to pass another budget. "Time will tell," as Leo said on Friday night.

The reality is, though, with additional MEPs elected and buoyed by an expected good showing in the locals, he will be under ferocious pressure to go before then, probably in June, so Varadkar does not get the benefit of a Dail in summer recess. On such small margins will turn the next election.

And Fianna Fail's excuse for going to the country? The return of a border; the children's hospital debacle, or any number of health scandals would do it, which was why the party was privately cursing Sinn Fein's premature confidence motion in Simon Harris last week.

Sunday Independent

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