Is Fine Gael about to throw away the greatest chance of re-election ever presented to the party, asks Political Editor Daniel McConnell
“Where do we go from here? The words are coming out all weird, Where are you now, when I need you”
THOSE famous words from Radiohead’s ‘The Bends’ — or variants of them — are possibly being uttered by Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan, and their fellow ministers. Given the rotten run of form they have had since the start of the general election campaign, who would blame them for engaging in such solemn reflections?
Is Fine Gael about to throw away the greatest chance of re-election ever presented to the party?
With just six days to go until polling day, Fine Gael have appeared to run out of answers other than to “scare the shit out of people”, as one party strategist confided to the Sunday Business Post.
With the third week of campaigning now over, movements in the electoral landscape have by and large been minor, except for a discernible five-point slide in support for Fine Gael.
Thinking back to how this campaign began, it is simply unforgivable from a Fine Gael point of view that Kenny and his inner team of focus group-obsessed advisers got it so badly wrong.
The timing of the election and when to call it was the one matter totally in their control and they simply made a balls of it.
From the inglorious and arrogant manner of Kenny’s announcement to the Dáil and his walkout before allowing the Opposition to reply, to his “jargon” gaffe and the people not understanding, it was all wrong.
But worse still was the party’s failure to hammer home its advantage in terms of economic credibility in the opening week of the campaign, relying on a questionable slogan of “Keeping the Recovery Going” when many in the country, particularly outside Dublin, don’t feel any recovery at all.
A poll conducted by Red C confirmed that a majority of people polled said the impacts of the economic recovery have passed them by.
Given Fine Gael’s slump to 26% in the latest poll, down five points in 10 days, the party has been cast into crisis on its core message.
Speaking to me, a number of Fine Gael’s top strategists have admitted that the “keeping the recovery” line is to be abandoned in the final days of the campaign, in favour of some nuanced version which is more emotive and less condescending.
“The message is about recovery but it is about making it more real to people, more emotional for the coming days,” said one source.
Aside from the slogan, Fine Gael’s campaign has yet to recover from its promise that, if re-elected, the Coalition could have up to €12bn in extra resources to spend if the economy kept growing.
Combined with the party’s promise to abolish the universal social charge for everybody (a promise more generous than those of all other parties), the carefully constructed image of Fine Gael as the responsible minders of the country’s coffers has been severely undermined.
That reputation for fiscal responsibility was a major part of Fine Gael’s pitch to undecided voters, but has been called into question.
“They have been like an alcoholic who comes out of the clinic after five years of rehab and the first thing he asks is for directions to the nearest pub,” Cormac Lucey, chairman of the libertarian think-tank the Hibernia Forum, told the Financial Times yesterday.
Out on the canvass, Fine Gael handlers will admit the party has never been loved the way Fianna Fáil was in days gone by.
It has, however, been respected in terms of being able to run the country properly, but the events of the last two weeks have robbed the party of the one thing that is so crucial at this stage of a campaign – momentum.
Soaring in the opinion polls just a month ago, Fine Gael has seen its momentum vanish in the past two weeks.
After 40 years in the Dáil and 14 as leader of Fine Gael, Kenny has traded on his common touch and ability to connect with voters.
But he and his cadre of ministers have shown themselves to be unable to read the mood of an Irish electorate still smarting over the effects of the recession.
Since the Irish Sun/Red C Poll was published on Wednesday, Kenny and Fine Gael have been putting a brave face on it.
“It has given us all a kick in the ass, but I am feeling better now about things than I was a week ago,” said one Fine Gael strategist.
What we have seen is the likes of Noonan and Simon Harris out on the offensive, taking the fight to both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin on their economic numbers.
Noonan on Thursday gave a classic performance at a Fine Gael press conference, referring to the “Gerry Adams school of maths” to dismiss Sinn Féin’s finance spokesman Pearse Doherty. He also referred to the “chicken-licken economists” in the media and Fianna Fáil.
Despite the poll setbacks, Fine Gael wants to fight this battle on the economy and the party feels that as long as that is where the fight is, it will be ok.
As many as four opinion polls are expected this weekend, which will either confirm the slump in Fine Gael support or show whether the expected stability swing back to Fine Gael and Labour has finally taken hold.
As we head into the final straight, it would appear Fine Gael has little to offer but the fear of the unknown as a means of contesting the election.
It would seem, as Shakespeare famously said, that the best safety lies in fear.
Will fear be the salvation of Fine Gael?
The true test of the next week will be, in my view, not who can inflict the most damage, but who can endure the most damage and remain standing.
That is the challenge for Fine Gael.
“Time-serving sycophants, which is what the majority of Irish people really are, will jump to the sound of a distant lash like galley-slaves,” Breandán Ó hEithir’s Begrudger’s Guide to Irish Politics tells us.
While I might not go that far, there is without question a lot of truth in that statement.
The politics of fear will without question form a strong part of the last few days of the campaign, particularly if Fine Gael’s numbers slide even further.
We will know all in a week’s time.
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