Election delays get Martin’s vote

On your marks, get set, g-... Actually, would you mind holding on for a few months? One of you looks trapped by Brexit, and the other wants to tie his laces, again.

Election delays get Martin’s vote

On your marks, get set, g-... Actually, would you mind holding on for a few months? One of you looks trapped by Brexit, and the other wants to tie his laces, again.

You could forgive Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil members for beginning to feel the strain.

For the past 18 months, the two rival leaders, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin, have been crouched at the starting line, poised to throw themselves forward into the general election race, despite nothing happening.

Former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald’s resignation, the Denis Naughten broadband scandal, and the one-year confidence-and-supply extension talks all proved to be false starts, with the starting gun going off, but nobody moving.

And with the near-inevitable election of arch-Conservative Boris Johnson as British prime minister, next Tuesday, the Brexit crisis has seemingly crushed the latest predictions of a snap autumn election,making another delay to the contest unavoidable.

Both parties’ leaders have publicly raised the issue this week, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying he has no plans for a 2019 election, due to the dangers facing the country, just hours after Mr Martin predicted Brexit will push back any election until next spring.

While the constant delays are no doubt frustrating for those watching on, there is an increasing suspicion that the same is not quite true for those involved.

Or, to be precise, not for one of them.

While Mr Varadkar is in pole position for now, it has not gone unnoticed in Leinster House circles that the children’s hospital, broadband overspend, homelessness, and cervical cancer scandals have taken the sheen off the Fine Gael leader’s image.

Coupled with a series of high-profile slips, the latest the decision to liken Mr Martin to a sinful priest, Mr Varadkar has transformed from Telfon Taoiseach to Tick Tock Taoiseach — the sooner he calls an election the better, except that Brexit means it is never the right time.

And while Mr Martin has problems of his own, with ongoing internal disquiet over how the confidence-and-supply deal is still neutering his party, they pale in comparison, with the Cork TD happy to sit back and wait in his starting block for a few more months, as his opponent feels the strain.

It may be disputed, but the Tick Tock Taoiseach label should not be dismissed lightly, and opinion poll trends give an indication as to why.

In the first months of Mr Varadkar’s two-year reign as Taoiseach, he and Fine Gael were riding high in the polls, with the party’s legitimate fears that Fianna Fáil would drag it into a snap election, with Enda Kenny as a dead duck leader, pushed to one side, as his shiny, PR-friendly replacement took to the stage.

In January 2018, Fine Gael stood at 34% in the Ipsos/Irish Times poll, while Mr Varadkar’s personal satisfaction rating stood at 60%, higher than any taoiseach since pre-crash Bertie Ahern in 2007.

This compared with Fianna Fáil’s and Mr Martin’s 25% and 42% support, respectively, meaning Mr Varadkar and his party had a healthy lead on both fronts.

However, in the most recent, May 2019, version of the same poll, the figures told a different story.

While Fine Gael remained within the high-20s to low-30s ballpark that it has called home for the past two years, its 29% was still one of its lowest Ipsos/Irish Times ratings since Mr Varadkar took power, and only just above Fianna Fáil’s 26%.

Similarly, the Taoiseach’s own personal satisfaction fell to 36% — again, the lowest since he took office — compared to MrMartin’s relatively stable 43%.

And while the old mantra that the only poll that counts is the election itself still holds true, it will not have escaped either leader’s attention that the trend is mirrored in both the Red C/Sunday Business Post and Behaviour and Attitudes/Sunday Times polls.

In basic terms, what this suggests is that while Mr Varadkar’s image won him near-universal support at the beginning of his tenure, over the past year that image has been on the wane, with the same bag of tricks no longer having quite the same effect.

In normal circumstances, the obvious solution would be to call a snap election and cut out the issue before it becomes a problem.

However, politics in 2019 is far from normal, with the shadow of a no-deal Brexit looming on the horizon meaning that while Mr Varadkar may be itching to call one, he can’t without risking being seen to put his party, and his own needs, before the country’s.

That’s hardly something that a savvy politician wants to do.

By contrast, Mr Martin’s image has been relativelyundamaged by the to-ing and fro-ing of recent months.

In fact, if anything, it has grown.

Yes, a significant slice of his party’s traditional grassroots has not forgotten the Fianna Fáil leader’s support for repealing th Eighth Amendment and liberalising Ireland’s abortion laws last year.

Yes, Fianna Fáil had, at best, a mixed bag of results in May’s local and European elections, with the party only winning what now MEP Billy Kelleher quipped this week was “one-and-a-half” European parliament seats, the “half” being Barry Andrews.

And, yes, Mr Martin was the subject of widespread ridicule from some commentators, when he agreed to extend the confidence-and-supply deal lastNovember, without any tangible wins.

However, as close watchers of the Fianna Fáil leader will testify, there is almost always a hidden undercurrent to what Mr Martin is doing.

Despite the internal party divisions over abortion, Mr Martin’s considered, January 2018 Dáil speech, explaining his eighth amendment position, was representative of much of middleIreland.

In the Dáil, he has provided a dull, but solid counterpoint to Mr Varadkar’s more stylistic tendencies, something which the polls show is clearly appealing to a section of the public.

And while the confidence-and-supply extension hurt him in the short-term, in the long-term it has given the seemingly unbeatable Taoiseach space to make mistakes, helping to chip away at his support while Mr Martin furrows his brow and plays the “responsible” alternative, waiting in the wings for his last chance to grasp power.

All of which means that while anautumn election may be tempting, the Brexit crisis potentially plays right into Mr Martin’s hands, with the Fianna Fáil leader in no rush to pull the plug on Fine Gael and happy to wait until next spring before sprinting down the track.

The contrasting issues for the two leaders — and their parties — were pushed to the back burner by both Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin this week, with both putting on their most sincere voices and insisting the country comes first in the Brexit battle.

But that claim should be taken with a pinch of salt.

While both leaders fully understand the need to keep a steady Irish position, as the good ship Boris prepares to take to the high seas of diplomacy in the coming days in search of Mars bars, bendy bananas and unicorns,, neither is naive enough to think that Brexit is the only issue at stake.

The looming shadow of a crash-out, no-deal Brexit this Halloween — or, at the very least, a messy series of panicked talks to extend the deadline yet again — means a general election in Ireland is increasingly likely to be pushed back into 2020, at least, before a solution is found.

And, as the Brexit starting gun continues to misfire, for now there is only one candidate who is going to benefit from another seemingly inevitableelection delay.

More in this section

News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Cookie Policy Privacy Policy FAQ Help Contact Us Terms and Conditions

© Irish Examiner Ltd