Opportunity may be knocking for Leo to gain historic third term

He is not a gambler, he is a mathematician. He plots three, four steps ahead. He will not risk a Theresa May calamity on the basis of two or three polls. He genuinely wants this to go on, writes Daniel McConnell

Opportunity may be knocking for Leo to gain historic third term

‘HE’S going well,” they say. “He’s in the driving seat.”

If you were Leo, why not call a snap election?

He is the most popular Taoiseach in over a decade, and his party’s support more than puts them in the driving seat to form the next Government.

A range of opinion polls in recent days have placed them between 32% percent and 34%, and all show a commanding lead on Fianna Fáil.

For example, the first Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll of 2018, published on Thursday week last, showed Fine Gael maintaining a substantial lead over Fianna Fáil.

Despite slipping back to 34% from the lofty heights of 36% it attracted in December off the back of the major Brexit showdown, Varadkar’s party has a nine-point gap on the Soldiers of Destiny.

Satisfaction with the Government was also up three points to 44%. We have to go back to June 2008 to find a higher rating.

Trust in the Government is slowly being restored.

According to the Red C poll in last weekend’s Sunday Business Post, Fine Gael stood at 32%, six points ahead of Fianna Fail.

A discernible lead even after Martin made his stance on abortion in the Dáil, against the wishes of the majority of his party.

Whichever metric, these are dream numbers for Fine Gael who are beginning to see some fruit after many difficult years in Government.

For example, in 2011 when the country dumped Fianna Fáil out of office with a wallop, Fine Gael under Enda Kenny picked up 36% of the vote which delivered the party a record haul of 76 seats.

As we know, in 2016, Fine Gael had a disastrous day at the polls.

It slipped to just 25.5% in voting terms which landed 50 seats, a loss of 26 on 2011. Twenty-six seats!

That was just six more than Fianna Fáil whereas, in 2011, the gap was 56.

Wiped out in traditional heartlands like Tipperary where they lost two seats and now have no representative, Fine Gael in Munster endured a nightmare.

Simon Coveney’s running mate Jerry Buttimer lost his seat in Cork South Central to Sinn Féin’s rising star Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire.

In Cork East, Tom Barry lost out to Kevin O’Keeffe of Fianna Fáil.

In Cork North West, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed’s running mate Áine Collins lost out to another Fianna Fáiler, Aindrias Moynihan.

In Cork South West, Noel Harrington lost out as Fianna Fáil’s Margaret Murphy O’Mahony recovered a party seat.

In Kerry, sitting minister Jimmy Deenihan fell short amid the Healy Rae party rise, leaving Castlemaine’s Brendan Griffin the sole Blueshirt in the Kingdom.

In Limerick City, Michael Noonan, the veteran bruiser held on but running mate Kieran O’Donnell was defeated and has had to make do with life in the Seanad.

In Waterford, the Deasy dynasty seat held for John, but Paudie Coffey was yet another casualty.

And on and on and on across the country came the casualties.

For example, in Mayo — the home constituency of Enda Kenny — Fine Gael took four out of five seats in 2011 but took just two out of four in 2016.

Boundary changes forced John O’Mahony out while Michelle Mulherin felt the squeeze from Kenny and the other veteran Michael Ring.

Such losses are there to be made up once again and the vacuum in Tipperary was the main reason they held their party conference there last year.

Based on the current poll ratings of between 32% and 34%, it is estimated Fine Gael could return with anywhere between 65 and 70 seats.

It would leave an outgoing administration first option to form the next Government and deliver a historic three in a row for the party.

And, even a modest increase on that, on polling day, could leave Fine Gael in touching distance of a Dáil majority.

Now, from speaking to party sources, many of the lost seats listed above are top of the list for attack.

But for all the positive mood which was palpable around the corridors of Leinster House this week, Varadkar himself is far more sanguine and cautious.

“He is not a gambler, he is a mathematician.

“He plots three, four steps ahead.

“He will not risk a Theresa May calamity on the basis of two or three polls. He genuinely wants this to go on,” said a source close to Varadkar.

“His efforts are to trying to get an extension to the confidence and supply agreement and has told his ministers to make sure their Fianna Fáil counterparts are ‘minded’.

“He believes there is no appetite for an election,” a senior minister told me.

Sources close to the Taoiseach also point to a full agenda in 2018, including the abortion referendum, Brexit, the Pope’s visit, the budget and a possible presidential election.

However, not everyone at the top of Fine Gael is singing from the same hymn sheet.

Others feel that it would be incredibly difficult to argue, credibly, an extension of the deal with Fianna Fáil.

“He needs to get his own mandate, it would be very hard to argue clinging on to a no-mandate position. That is what makes me think an election in 2018 is still likely,” said another Fine Gael source.

No matter when he does decide to go, we already have strong signals as to what sort of campaign Varadkar will run.

Key to any Fine Gael message will be economic stability and while we won’t hear any more talk of keeping the recovery going, the prudence and careful management of the economy by Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will be a central theme.

Varadkar is highly wedded to his slogan ‘Republic Of Opportunity’ and a message of equal opportunity is another key tenet.

But neither is Varadkar going to try and be all things to all men.

“He does have stances on certain matters. He is not a social democrat or pretended to be, and therefore some people who are will not vote for you.

“But Leo is not a populist but he strongly feels that if you have pragmatic governance there is a chance they will vote for you,” a source close to the Taoiseach told me.

OTHERS have a rather more malign interpretation of his outlook.

“When it comes down to it, Fine Gael don’t give a shit really about the poor or the homeless.

“That stuff does not keep them awake at night,” said a former ministerial colleague of Varadkar.

“They don’t get any votes from those people so his focus is not on them at all.

“He believes in low taxes, pro-enterprise solutions. In truth, they pay lip service to those issues,” the ex-minister said.

But, whatever the truth of the matter, as of now Varadkar is completely secure in his leadership of Fine Gael, and his popularity does rival the control Bertie Ahern enjoyed over his party in his pomp.

While Varadkar is not considering an election now, should he find himself forced into calling one this year, his own strong popularity combined with the ongoing state of chaos in Fianna Fáil means he is running the table.

A historic third term is within his grasp.

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