David Davin-Power: Fine Gael managing dwindling expectations

If he was a man under pressure, Leo Varadkar wasn’t showing it during a leisurely visit to St Joseph’s College in the Dublin suburb of Lucan.

David Davin-Power: Fine Gael managing dwindling expectations

If he was a man under pressure, Leo Varadkar wasn’t showing it during a leisurely visit to St Joseph’s College in the Dublin suburb of Lucan.

Polls might suggest that he’s on his way out of office, and that his party could find itself in third place on Saturday, but the Taoiseach found time to chat with the Sixth Year politics class in Dublin Mid West, fielding questions on gender issues, disability, climate change, and — inevitably — the prospects of a long-promised extension for the school.

Leo Varadkar plays pool in 'The Midland Bar' while on the campaign trail in Enfield, Co. Meath. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Leo Varadkar plays pool in 'The Midland Bar' while on the campaign trail in Enfield, Co. Meath. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Looking relaxed to the point of insouciance, he seemed surprised to hear that the constituency was represented by four TDs from the Clondalkin area, on the other side of Dublin Mid West, after the Fine Gael candidate hoping to replace Frances Fitzgerald was beaten by Sinn Féin in the recent by-election.

The party is hoping that Emer Higgins will get over the line this time, but a buoyant Sinn Féin insists it can retain their two TDs on a quarter of the first-preference vote.

With the broadcast moratorium kicking in at lunchtime tomorrow, there is precious little time for Fine Gael to reboot a campaign that hasn’t resonated with voters, and in truth, Mr Varadkar showed little inclination to alter course.

The net issue of the day in the all-girls school was gender equality, the Taoiseach joking that he hoped that a woman would have his job at some point — but not yet.

He was invited to concede that he’d misjudged the public mood by making Brexit the focus of the campaign, but insisted once again that our continued prosperity, and every election promise, was predicated on a smooth departure for the UK.

Despite the heart-rending interview with the mother of Paul Quinn an hour earlier, Mr Varadkar said he didn’t want to make the Armagh man’s murder 13 years ago part of the campaign.

Even as Charlie Flanagan was calling for the North’s finance minister Conor Murphy to tell the Gardaí what he knew about the attack, his Taoiseach was staying above the fray, insisting it should not be used as a political issue.

Mary Lou McDonald’s discomfort was all too plain to see on Tuesday night, and he knows there is little to be gained by exploiting a killing that, for all its brutality, may not move the dial appreciably with a younger electorate who have little interest in Sinn Féin’s recent history, seeing them instead as the ‘party of change’ as their social media campaign has it.

Mr Varadkar did, however, repeat his warning that “all the smoke signals” being sent to Fianna Fáil HQ by the party’s TDs pointed to an eventual link-up with Sinn Féin. That is likely to be the thrust of the remaining days of this campaign, which now sees Fine Gael strategists increasingly despondent as the shape of Election 2020 becomes ever clearer.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visiting St Joseph’s College, Lucan, today with local Fine Gael candidate Emer Higgins. Picture: Douglas O'Connor
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visiting St Joseph’s College, Lucan, today with local Fine Gael candidate Emer Higgins. Picture: Douglas O'Connor

Managing the dwindling expectations has already begun, one senior figure insisting to me that “a third term for a Fine Gael Taoiseach was always going to be a big ask”; all the more so when the key metrics for the electorate are not the astonishing improvement in our economic indicators over the last nine years, but the more down-to-earth tallies of homelessness and trolley numbers over that period outlined in these pages time and time again.

Four years ago the Fine Gael campaign misfired from the off, with a misconceived slogan and persistent confusion about how to deploy Enda Kenny.

In 2020 it has been slick and efficient, with a photogenic Taoiseach who has scarcely put a foot wrong.

Unfortunately, this time the problem lies with the electorate who simply want change, and see Sinn Féin as the vehicle to deliver it.

And how will those voters feel when they see Mary Lou McDonald excluded from office? There are three likely scenarios when a Government finally emerges, none of them involving Sinn Féin.

The first is an alliance involving Fianna Fáil, the Greens, Social Democrats, and Labour, should the numbers allow. There is also the prospect of Fine Gael holding its nose and entering into a confidence and supply arrangement headed by Micheál Martin.

And what price a Grand Coalition, if that appears the only alternative to another election?

It would represent the riskiest strategy of all for the two largest parties, and is likely to face fierce resistance from backbenchers in both parties as it and would see Mary Lou McDonald ideally placed to consolidate her support as opposition leader.

With senior figures increasingly resigned to defeat on Saturday, thoughts in Fine Gael are turning to its post-election strategy.

Mary Harney famously observed that the worst day in Government is still better than the best day in opposition, but this time, it might be the best option for Leo Varadkar and his party.

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