Fine Gael has gathered this weekend in Wexford for its second national conference in less than six months. Yet again, the national airwaves will be given over to listen to the offerings of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar tonight.
But, unlike last time when he addressed the nation, Varadkar’s appeal is on the slide — as is his party’s. A dodgy budget plus a succession of scandals and mishandlings, typified by the National Children’s Hospital, has seen the halo of prudence and competence badly dented. Varadkar, himself, has acknowledged that things have begun to unravel.
An Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll earlier this month showed Varadkar had suffered another slump in his personal approval rating. Varadkar’s satisfaction rating fell by eight points from 51% last October to 43%.
While he remains the most popular of the party leaders, the poll’s number was the lowest satisfaction rating he has achieved since becoming leader. It represents the third consecutive fall as measured by polls since the beginning of last year when his satisfaction rating was 60%.
The disappointment was compounded by a three-point drop in support for Fine Gael since October, with the party registering the support of 30% of voters who expressed a preference and are likely to vote. Support for Fine Gael fell sharply among farmers and the most financially well-off voters, the figures showed.
Asked for his response to the poll’s findings, Varadkar was typically honest: “I never read too much into any one poll but I am not going to pretend that I ignore them. I tend to take them in threes or fours. And what is evident is that over the course of the past six months, support for my party, Fine Gael, which I suppose had been mid- 30s is now low 30s. There may be lots of reasons for that. How do you deal with it? How do you improve that? You concentrate on the issues people care about: Brexit, the economy, jobs, putting money in people’s pockets, making progress in healthcare and housing. That is how I am going to respond.”
Varadkar, the quintessential metrosexual, PR-obsessed Taoiseach, is not cutting the mustard with his own rural base, and he knows it. But just why is it beginning to go wrong for the Government party?
Well, Varadkar has his view: “I can’t know that for sure. There may be lots of different reasons. One thing we have definitely seen from the middle of July last year is a real fall-off in consumer confidence. Consumer confidence in Ireland is now back to where it was in 2012.
Bear in mind 2012 was in the teeth of austerity and right after the financial crisis and that is happening despite the fact that there is almost full employment, rising incomes and rising living standards. Perhaps some of that is related to Brexit, concerns around Brexit. Perhaps it is related to other matters too
“There are definite issues around the cost of living, of course, issues around rents and so on. We need to analyse that. What I am absolutely convinced of as a government, involving Fine Gael and Independents, and as a party, the best way to recover your poll ratings is the concentrate on the people’s business, doing the stuff they want you do. Getting Brexit right, keeping the economy and jobs safe, improving living standards, making progress in health care and housing and that is entirely my focus and that of government.”
But in truth, despite Fianna Fáil being trapped by confidence and supply, and Sinn Féin doing its continued best to shoot itself in the foot, Fine Gael has not been able to capitalise. In fact, it has gone in reverse.
Varadkar, Donohoe, Murphy et al represent a particular wing of Fine Gael. One that quite frankly doesn’t sit well with their more rural colleagues. To some, they come across as smug, arrogant and high-handed — and appointing Simon Coveney as Tánaiste and deputy leader has done little to reconnect with the base.
Speaking of Coveney, it must be remembered that the grassroot members by a margin of two to one decided to plump for him ahead of Varadkar in 2016 when asked whom did they want to be leader. Under Varadkar, Fine Gael has seen a major drop in support among its traditional farming base, a national opinion poll for the Irish Examiner revealed last September. The Behaviour and Attitudes poll showed that support for the main Government party slumped by eight points in a year.
Fine Gael recorded its lowest level of support among farmers in five years and now stands at 32% — a notable decrease on the previous year when the party stood at 40%. “Farmers who have been a reliable support base for Fine Gael are not only abandoning the party but increasing numbers are now undecided about who they would vote for in a general election while others are unlikely to vote at all,” my colleague Elaine Loughlin concluded.
Upon taking office, the Taoiseach did revitalise his Cabinet, replacing the likes of Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan with young blood but with a decidedly Dublin-centric feel. In came Eoghan Murphy and later Josepha Madigan, who alongside Varadkar, Paschal Donohoe, Richard Bruton, Regina Doherty, and Simon Harris, are all from the greater Dublin area. The anti-rural imbalance perception has strengthened.
The appointment of Michael Ring and the creation of the Department of Rural Affairs without a realistic budget or power has smacked of tokenism — appeasement to the culchies. But it is not working. It is that imbalance which ultimately hurting Fine Gael among its traditional heartlands.
In the 2016 general election, Fine Gael dropped from 76 seats to just 50. Those losses in constituency after constituency occurred from Donegal to West Cork, and on the current poll numbers, little of those 26 seats are coming back. The simple truth of the slide in popularity for Fine Gael is largely because of self-inflicted harm. Six months ago, Varadkar was itching to cut and run to the country to capitalise on poll ratings of 34%-plus. He was under significant pressure from within his own Cabinet to do so. Maybe some knew the children’s hospital scandal would break; others may have thought such high ratings would not last. Either way, on Varadkar’s watch, Fine Gael has lost ground.
With just eight weeks to the local and European elections, the gathering in Wexford this weekend is an excuse to show off some of the candidates. If Varadkar wants to claw back some of that lost ground, he needs things to start going his way.