Fine Gael squandered chance to be a new natural party of government

Fine Gael squandered chance to be a new natural party of government
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s personal ratings were up significantly in yesterday’s Ipos MRBI poll in ‘The Irish Times’ — it reflects that he has been centre-stage on Brexit. Picture: Charles McQuillan

Opinion polls leading to cut-and-run elections are the road to ruin. That a tranche of parliamentary opinion in Fine Gael is hot to trot means it is time to open the window and let in cold air.

There are reasons in theory why an election might be considered. In practice all of them are trumped by reasons not to. The basis of truncating a government that is functioning reasonably well, whether you agree with it or not, won’t last beyond the opening salvo of any campaign.

I have seen Fine Gael campaigns close up, albeit from the outside, in 1997, 2002, 2007, 2011 and 2016. Only 2011 was a success, and it was impossible to lose given the scale of anger against Fianna Fáil. It was a mandate that was over-interpreted afterwards, and underused.

Its extent was foolishly seen as a positive endorsement, and it was in part. But some of it was the debris of Fianna Fáil votes washed up on the Fine Gael benches. An overwhelming victory, based on the collapse of its main rival did not amount to being the new natural party of government.

The irony is that it could have become that, but it didn’t. The 2011 mandate was underused.

Being conservative in disposition, as distinct from ideologically right wing, Fine Gael underestimated the need and opportunity to revamp the State.

Having established its institutions after 1922, the pull of their DNA then was to restore it after 2011. It is to their credit that they largely did so — it is a pity too. It fundamentally misjudges how the country is run, to think that changing the party in government changes direction. It doesn’t.

The deep pull of resources is towards the public sector. Over time the most important pull of direction is in the senior ranks of the civil and public service. It was depleted by the economic crash, but critically all its forms were left intact and now remain unchanged.

Fine Gael, and certainly Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan couldn’t countenance the radical change required. From 2015 it was being fattened again. The cull of the quangos dreamed of by Leo Varadkar when a young TD in opposition was also a missed opportunity.

In 2011, we had the third largest turnover of parliamentary personnel in any election, in any Western democracy since the Second World War. Fine Gael was the largest beneficiary. Largely, they did the right things afterwards, but what they didn’t do is their ultimate legacy.

The other way that win in 2011 was underused, was to miss the opportunity of co-opting a portion of the Fianna Fáil vote while the party was reeling and toxic. But Fine Gael came in, in 2011 after 14 years in opposition, and for them, the victors, the spoils.

That politically sectarian view gave a lot a self-satisfaction in the short term but after 2014 when the tide went out, it looked like another missed opportunity. Its main rival was off life-support. Fine Gael was again stranded within its own political base, which was never sufficient to be the natural party of government.

Essentially between 2011 and 2014, a State that had failed its people was resuscitated with its ineffective forms intact, and the party that had led it through its final florid phase before the crash was back in the game politically. It was arguably the largest waste of Irish political capital, ever.

The circumstances of the 2016 election are I think misunderstood, because they are looked at in hindsight. Enda Kenny is accused of missing his opportunity by not holding an election in November 2015, after Brendan Howlin loosened the purse strings to whet the electoral appetite.

That’s correct after a fashion, but it misses the essential point. Kenny didn’t really have a choice. Labour and Joan Burton were facing Armageddon and determined to hold off, and hope against hope for a reprieve.

The foundational narrative of that government was of stability. For Kenny to cut, and leave Labour in the lurch and angrily protesting about Fine Gael bad faith, would have disabled his central claim. So he held off.

It was the Fine Gael campaign that did well in metropolitan Ireland, but disastrously elsewhere that gifted Fianna Fáil up to 10 seats. The legacy is that for the first time since 2007 there will be a real context for the office of Taoiseach. I think that context will come in 2020.

It is good for Leo Varadkar that his personal ratings are up significantly in yesterday’s Ipos MRBI poll in The Irish Times. It reflects that he has been centre-stage on Brexit, is seen to be doing well on it and critically the absence of any backlash against the budget.

But that hasn’t moved his party on a jot. Aside from the Greens who doubled their rating from 4% to 8%, it’s all pretty much as it was.

What’s hemming in Fine Gael at a respectable but insufficient 29% is Fianna Fáil who are holding their general election gains, and have a claim to be actually performing better in some constituencies. That overlaps with electoral issues and candidate problems for Fine Gael in some rural constituencies.

Back with the more metropolitan, the Green rise is an issue for Fine Gael, as it is for Labour. If Fine Gael is south of 30% on Election Day, its return to government is uncertain. To start prematurely in November the unstoppable event of a general election, premised on Leo’s Brexit, but which after a few days becomes all about housing and health, would be very foolish.

Clearly Leo Varadkar wanted an election before now. Paschal Donohoe acquiesced and spent public money for political gain, but the day at the mart was postponed and all that lingered was diminished reputation.

NOW the Taoiseach again has the opportunity and responsibility to lead Ireland through Brexit. Belatedly, but wisely, we have a budget that is about right for the country and delivers on prudence preached, but not previously practised.

That’s the thing about politics. You do have to be quick on your feet, see around corners and have the guile to pick your issues and your timings. But ultimately there must be a match between what is said and done. For much of the last two years, that has been a mismatch for Fine Gael.

Their chance now is not to cut and run and double down on their previous mistake. It is to stay and govern. It is to align again what people think about them with what they say about themselves. It will be a difficult winter in government. Housing and Health will be deeply challenging. And of course the opposition and media will circle.

But that’s government, and that’s what Fine Gael signed up for. The essential detail then will beto deliver a campaign which doesn’t fail.

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