Swing-gate only the beginning of Leo's problems as clouds of Election 2020 gather

Swing-gate only the beginning of Leo's problems as clouds of Election 2020 gather

It's the saga that has sparked a thousand memes and has had people chattering in pubs, golf clubs, office canteens, and taxi cabs.

Swing-gate controversially propelled Maria Bailey from relatively obscure Fine Gael backbencher to a household name for all the wrong reasons.

But Fine Gael and their leader Leo Varadkar must be acutely aware that the embarrassing incident which quickly evolved into a political scandal is only one of a growing list of problems the party will face going into a General Election - whenever that may be.

Many in her party have come to see Ms Bailey as toxic long before the latest instalment in the swing-gate saga in her own constituency tonight. Her refusal to take ownership of her ill-advised actions, her attempt to place blame on the media who first reported the case, her incapacity to judge the public mood on the issue, and above all her decision to take part in what has been now dubbed a car-crash interview with Sean O'Rourke all contributed to her being ostracised from some quarters.

Ms Bailey clearly has been severely damaged, but more significantly she has also inflicted significant injury on her party who cannot seem to recover fully from the scandal since it first broke back in May ahead of the local and European elections.

Swing-gate is now seen as so detrimental to the party that the Taoiseach and four of his senior ministers refused to express confidence in Ms Bailey when asked today.

Closing ranks, Simon Harris, Eoghan Murphy, Richard Bruton and Josepha Madigan all declined the opportunity to back Ms Bailey ahead of a crunch constituency meeting of party members in the Royal Marine Hotel to decide her fate tonight.

"We are a democratic party and the local organisation will have an opportunity to have their say,” said Mr Harris, trying to steer clear of the thorny issue.

Earlier this month, when pressed by the Irish Examiner on whether he would commit to campaigning with Ms Bailey in her constituency, Mr Varadkar also gave a very political answer:

"Whenever the election comes I'll be happy to campaign alongside any candidate who's been selected and ratified for Fine Gael."

The problem is no-one in the Fine Gael party had really wanted to be seen to throw her under the bus and turn her into the victim. But likewise, many members, especially those in the Dáil have been seething over the detrimental impact she has had on them and see this as a potential stumbling block in securing their own re-election.

And so tonight it has been left to grassroots members to try to settle the issue when the local rank and file were asked to vote on a motion which did not name Ms Bailey but was clear in its intent.

“The Dún Laoghaire Constituency Executive calls on Fine Gael Executive Council to urgently review the ticket for the general election and to make any changes necessary in order to improve our prospects in the forthcoming general election,” the motion reads.

Josepha Madigan with Maria Bailey
Josepha Madigan with Maria Bailey

Whether Fine Gael can ever close the swing-gate chapter remains to be seen.

But Mr Varadkar's big electoral headache in Dun Laoghaire is only part of a wider problem he faces in retaining keep power.

Going into the next General Election, Fine Gael will already be down at least eight of their perceived safe seats, including that of former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, former Finance Minister Michael Noonan, sitting Junior Minister Jim Daly, as well as Daragh Murphy and John Deasy.

The departure of former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald to Brussels also leaves a gap and it is the outcome of May's European elections which will also be problematic for the ruling party.

Government parties traditionally do not fair well in by-elections and Mr Varadkar will have four to fight before the end of November.

When Fine Gael decamped to Co Cork for their annual pre-Dáil think-in, the Taoiseach indicated that his party are only aiming to win one out of the four seats in these elections. However, even this may be optimistic.

A broad-sweep by-election defeat would be another blow to Fine Gael just ahead of the Christmas break.

Personally, Leo Varadkar has a lot at stake. Depending on when an election is called and the outcome of that poll, he risks becoming the shortest-serving Taoiseach in the history of the State.

With all this in mind, Fine Gael will now be desperate to shake off the Bailey controversy, which has allowed opposition parties to take aim at them at every opportunity.

From the ongoing issues in housing and health to the serious impacts Brexit may have on businesses and farmers, the Government have other political dangers that they must prepare for ahead of going to the polls.

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