Leo Varadkar, and Fine Gael, are no longer in great shape

Leo Varadkar, and Fine Gael, are no longer in great shape
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, with Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and senator Maura Hopkins, during a 5k run in Dublin. Now with the momentum against them, Fine Gael need to find a way to regain the initiative or start preparing themselves for life on the opposition benches. Picture: Gareth Chaney

A year ago, Leo Varadkar held all the aces.

As Taoiseach, the biggest gift of his office is the fact he — and he alone — holds the prerogative as to when a general election can be held.

As the Dáil broke for the summer in July 2018, Varadkar’s Fine Gael was in good shape.

A healthy lead over Fianna Fáil, which had been the case for about 12 months, was holding up. His own personal popularity was sky high and he and his party appeared on course for re-election.

Such favourable conditions fuelled plenty of talk of an early election in September and it is now well established that Varadkar and his inner team gave it serious consideration. He held back because of Brexit uncertainty and got his budget through.

Such was his strength of position, he was gifted a 12-month reprieve from Micheál Martin without condition, allowing his minority government to continue in theory until 2020.

But a year on, all has changed, changed utterly with a resurgent Fianna Fáil now appearing to be on the rise and Fine Gael having endured a torrid 2019 so far are slipping back.

On numerous fronts, they have dropped the ball — from the National Children’s Hospital to the National Broadband Plan, from the worsening housing crisis to the ongoing CervicalCheck scandal.

They were not helped when promises made by Varadkar and his ministers were broken.

Most notably, I am talking about the promise that no woman affected by the CervicalCheck scandal would be forced to go to court to get financial compensation — yet it continues to happen.

In isolation, all of these issues would be defensible but coming on top of each other, they conflate to make it look like Fine Gael are simply incompetent and not fit for office.

As a wise old Fianna Fáiler told me — “when you are in opposition, sometimes all you can do is sit back and wait for the public to get sick of the Government”.

After eight years in office, it appears quite clearly the public has grown very weary of Varadkar’s Fine Gael.

But the toll of the various scandals are taking their toll internally with various departments seeking to blame each other.

Senior Fine Gael figures, based in Merrion Street, have sought to dump the blame on Simon Harris’ Department of Health for all of its woes, saying the problems there could “destroy” the Government.

“The three or four biggest crises in the past year have all been Health: CervicalCheck, budget overrun, children’s hospital, and nurses’ strike. It’s all Health, it all comes back to Health,” said one source.

It is very hard to defend, on or off the record. We have taken a knock. I think we have taken a good few knocks. But the knocks are all health. It is not about spending from anywhere else. Health is like this monster that is gobbling up all the resources but is also gobbling up all the political credibility.

“That could not end well for anyone. That could end badly for the Government. Health is quite capable, I think, of destroying this Government. The Department of Health is just dangerous, really dangerous,” they continued.

As often happens in politics, the game can get away from you and it can be very difficult to regain control of the agenda. When such things happen, even straightforward things can begin to go wrong.

As I wrote here last week, of all of the 12 major items on Paschal Donohoe’s desk, would he ever have expected his appointment of a new Central Bank governor would have been the source of such controversy?

And then on top of all this came the unnecessary and somewhat contrived controversy around the Taoiseach’s comments in the Dáil about sinning priests.

Varadkar, following three heavy days in Brussels, had spent several hours in the Dáil, answering questions from opposition leaders and it would be fair to say he was not in best form.

Answering questions from Micheál Martin about the future Dunkettle Interchange roadworks, he said: “ I am always amused and bemused that Deputy Martin likes to accuse me of being partisan and personal yet, as evidenced by his name-calling today, he is very capable of being partisan and personal himself. The deputy reminds me of one of those parish priests who preaches from the altar telling us to avoid sin while secretly going behind the altar and engaging in any amount of sin himself.”

Within 24 hours, following howls of anger from the usual suspects, Varadkar had to hold his hands up. Speaking to reporters at Dublin Castle at the commencement of a Church-State forum, Varadkar accepted his comments had caused great offence, which he never intended to do. He said he made his comments during a personalised and bitter debate in the Dáil with Martin.

Varadkar said he was making a point about hypocrisy but said his choice of words was regrettable: 

Look it, I said something in the heat of a debate in the Dáil, it was a rather a bitter and personal debate on both sides. But in doing so I offended a lot of people who I never intended to offend. I am sorry for that, I withdraw the remarks and I do apologise.

When asked what he meant by the remarks, he said: “I was talking about the sin of hypocrisy, but I am not here to explain, I am here to apologise.”

“I am making the apology to anyone who was offended. This is something that was said in the heat of a political debate. I have immense respect for priests and the sacrifice they give in the lives they lead and immense respect for people of faith and it didn’t come out as I intended.”

While it was a storm in a chalice, having to apologise when you are Taoiseach is never a place you want to be.

It was the sort of incident you get yourself into when you are on a run of bad luck. Having held all the aces a year ago, it is tangible that Fine Gael is now very much on the backfoot.

One TD, speaking to me during the week, said there is now little or no chance of Fine Gael gaining seats next time around — but if they had gone to the polls last year they would have.

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are chasing 60 seats but as things stand Micheál Martin’s gang are more likely to achieve it.

After a decent local election, where they re-established themselves in Dublin and secured the lord mayor’s role for the first time in more than a decade, Fianna Fáil has a solid base to make real gains in the capital in terms of Dáil seats.

The kickback against Fine Gael, according to some senior ministers, is normal for this point in the political cycle.

Be that as it may, many in the party are wondering why, when they had a glorious opportunity to grow the party and gain Dáil seats, they did they not take it.

Now with the momentum against them, they need to find a way to regain the initiative or start preparing themselves for life on the opposition benches.

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