Thursday 22 August 2019

Paul Moran: 'Poll suggests unease at Leo's handling of Brexit'

Latest Kantar poll makes uncomfortable reading for Leo Varadkar with approval ratings stuck at a queasy 43pc

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

Paul Moran

As part of the Kantar/Sunday Independent annual consumer sentiment study, conducted over 11 days up to and including last Thursday, we have sampled the nation on a variety of issues. First up, and front of stage, is our relationship with the EU and the incoming Brexit negotiations (again).

This may make for uncomfortable reading for Leo Varadkar. We asked two questions relating specifically to the Taoiseach: How satisfied are we with his dealings in relationship to Brexit and how satisfied are we with his performance as Taoiseach?

Both metrics more or less mirror each other, with an identical 43pc expressing approval for his actions so far.

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So is that it? At a time where the Irish are in a place they arguably have never been before - holding the British down by the pin of their collar in terms of negotiations (obviously with the backing of our bigger brother, the EU) - we are lacklustre at best in our support of the strategy. We feel somewhat queasy about the whole affair.

The fact that Varadkar is well short of even a simple majority in terms of support of his actions towards Brexit speaks volumes. Of course, this poll was conducted mainly before Boris Johnson set out his stall in his usual rambunctious and bellicose manner. However, this poll suggests there is an uneasiness with the current government strategy, and arguably, its megaphone diplomacy.

In some ways it has been nice to look across the water and smirk at the appalling mess the British have landed themselves in. But that epoch of Schadenfreude seems to have dissipated.

What is it they say - be careful what you wish for, it might just come true?

Now we are worried.

In these trying times, we perhaps feel more comfortable reverting to the notion of being the plucky underdog - we don't know how to handle the mantle of being in control. Maybe, Leo Varadkar's approach, and his robust musings, jars with our psyche.

It seems that for many, the best course of action is to keep your counsel. We know the UK is in an unbelievable bind at the moment. Sometimes decorum is the best approach. Leo Varadkar, often the straight talker, has flown in the face of this adage.

It may well be that facts need to be stated, and untruths to be called out. How that is done is a different proposition. It feels like Varadkar is sometimes overstepping the mark in relation to Brexit, which is akin to poking a sleeping dog with a stick unnecessarily.

This is fine so long as we have the big brother behind us, but we need to be careful the big brother doesn't walk away, or else we, and Varadkar, could be in a whole world of pain.

It feels like we are coming towards end-game, and we are re-evaluating our relationship with the UK. Naturally there will be some antipathy towards the pomposity of some of new cabinet across the water, and their eccentricities.

However, if your neighbour's house catches fire, you are going to try and help them out - if nothing else, for your own self-preservation. This pragmatism feels like it is seeping through the populace at the moment.

Of course, these are fluid times, and resolve could harden again. Looking at Johnson's cabinet, with a team lining out characters like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and Priti Patel, along with his special adviser Dominic Cummings, the pendulum may swing back again to donning the green jersey.

Turing back to Varadkar, it is striking to note that there is no differential between his performance on Brexit and his performance as Taoiseach. One would have assumed that Brexit would pay dividends, compared to the issues domestically.

While we are in a relatively strong position in the EU, the issues are mounting at home - homelessness, infrastructure cost over-runs, a housing and rental crisis, health services, a geographically lopsided economy. Take your pick. It seems that there has been no Brexit Bounce for the Taoiseach - arguably the issue that will define his current term in office.

It appears Leo Varadkar is like Marmite - you either like him or you don't; 43pc are satisfied versus 32pc who are not. Interestingly, more affluent (ABs) and Dubliners are more likely to give him the nod, whereas older voters (especially those aged 65+) are less enamoured.

So, leaving Brexit aside, how do we feel about the EU? We are quite circumspect about the whole affair. As previously seen, we generally feel that the EU has been good to us since we joined in 1973. Over three in four (77pc) feel this to be the case, driven by those aged 55+, ABs and unsurprisingly the farming community.

Yet this represents a significant decline in support for the EU compared to this time last year, when 84pc agreed.

Eyeing the results overall, there is a noticeable softening in support of all things European.

Looking at the past ten years, and our relationship with Brussels, nearly seven in ten (68pc) feel that the EU was good to us, spanning the time of the economic collapse. Nevertheless, this is an eight-point decline compared to this time last year.

While we rank highly in our attitudes towards the EU, as evidenced in our recent Kantar pan-European Poll conducted in June, we are becoming slightly more guarded in our outlook towards Europe.

It may well be that we know our place on the broader landscape - seven in ten of us (71pc) believe that it is the EU who is pulling the strings in terms of our economy, as opposed to our own Government. This belief has remained relatively constant over the past few years.

This jittery relationship manifests itself more clearly when we talk about specifics. There is a concern about the proposed Mercosur Trade Deal with certain South American countries - over half of those surveyed (53pc) express some anxiety about the implications of such a deal. As you would expect, the farming community is most vexed - 72pc of them are worried about the possible implications.

It would seem that when the EU is good to us, it is a very good deal. But when broader continental issues are at play, we feel slightly less surefooted. We recognise that we are only a very small cog in the wheel.

And so, back to Brexit. Do we have faith in the EU that they will continue to back up Ireland's stance against the UK in terms of the backstop?

Again, there is a sniff of nervousness in the air. A healthy majority feel that the EU will continue to fight out of our corner, with 56pc agreeing that Brussels will respect our special position in the autumn negotiations. But this has dropped by six points since this time last year. We are a little more anxious. The new administration across the water will do little to calm the nerves.

As we reach end-game in terms of Brexit, it would seem we are realising that the time for games is over, and we are now sobering up to the reality of a potential no-deal Brexit and all that will entail.

Paul Moran is an associate director with Kantar

Sunday Independent

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