Double Down Varadkar in #GE2020

This column appeared on Broadsheet.ie on January 20th, after the first week of the #GE2020 campaign and the first national newspaper poll showing the sharp fall in Fine Gael support which I had been predicting for weeks. 

GE2020 postersOf all the possible ways he could have responded to yesterday’s bad poll numbers, the Taoiseach went and picked the worst. Ok, it was not quite the worst. He could have nutted a journo and told the rest of the media entourage assigned to go to hell, so at least he didn’t do that.

Where most other leaders would have taken the: well, it’s just a poll, a snapshot in time, there are three weeks of campaigning to go, the Taoiseach decided to shun humility, restraint or conciliation and went on the attack instead. He warned voters

“I think the opinion poll demonstrates that there is a real risk, a real danger that we’ll have a Fianna Fáil-led government”.

It is an approach we have seen before from this Taoiseach, when things are not going his way: the double down.

We saw it at the Frances Fitzgerald/Sgt Maurice McCabe crisis of late 2017. At a time when even his own backbencher TDs could see that the political crisis was demanding the resignation of his beleaguered Tánaiste and Justice Minister, the Taoiseach decided to double down. All he succeeded in doing was leaving himself with no alternative but to back down when the inevitable happened.

We saw it again, just a few weeks ago when he decided to double down on Charlie Flanagan’s ill-judged and ill-considered plans for RIC commemorations. Ironically, Flanagan is the justice minister Varadkar appointed to succeed Frances Fitzgerald. Frances had originally been appointed Justice Minister in succession to Alan Shatter, who yesterday launched this latest Twitter broadside at Varadkar’s Fine Gael.

Modern political history is full of leaders who discovered too late that doubling down doesn’t make them look strong, it makes them look detached, ineffectual and querulous. Doubling down to tell voters they have no choice can often result in them finding their own alternatives.

It happened to Ted Heath in 1974. In office since 1970 his Tory government had imposed a three-day working week to try to cope with rising oil prices, fuel shortages and power cuts. The threat of a major national strike by mineworker’s union, supported by other big unions in early 1974, led Heath to call an election.  and seek a mandate to take a stronger line with the unions. His Tory government was so sure it was going to win that it ran under the slogan: Who Governs Britain?

Heath assumed there could only be one response. There was. Just not the one he expected. Not you Heath, they said as they turfed him out and backed Labour’s Harold Wilson.

Let me be clear – I do not think Fianna Fáil is 12pts ahead of Fine Gael or that yesterday’s Sunday Times poll numbers will be replicated when the votes are (almost) all counted by this day three weeks.

As anyone who has read my musings here will know I never tire of saying that political parties do not do their polling in the same way as newspapers. I have made this point on almost every occasion where I have commented on the latest Business Post, B&A or MRBI national opinion poll – and we have two more polls due over the next week.

I do think is the Sunday Times/B&A poll highlights two key Fine Gael electoral vulnerabilities, especially outside Dublin.

The first is that Fine Gael is at risk of losing many of the second seats it holds in constituencies across the country.  The second is that its incumbency advantage has been lessened.

Having well-known sitting TDs with networks of contacts beyond their parties usual hinterland can often ease the impact of big negative swing. Ten of the FG TDs elected in 2016 (20%) are not running again in 2020 (6 are retiring, Deputies Peter Fitzpatrick, Maria Bailey and Dara Murphy have departed for a range of reasons and Frances Fitzgerald was elected to the European Parliament).

What the Sunday Times poll also suggests is that the Fianna Fáil versus Fine Gael contest is back where it was between March 2016 and July 2017. During that time, which covers the first days of the 2016 government led by Enda Kenny through to the election of Leo Varadkar as Kenny’s successor, there were about 36 major national newspaper opinion polls.

Fianna Fáil was ahead in 24 of them, by margins as narrow as 1pt or as wide as 11pt (the average was 3.5pt) while Fine Gael was ahead in 10 and the two parties were tied in two.

So, was it for this that Fine Gael ditched Enda Kenny and installed Leo Varadkar?

Wasn’t Varadkar’s great selling point to Fine Gael TDs (though not so much to rank and file members) that he was the great campaigner who would give Fine Gael the political clarity and definition, not to mention long term electoral success that Enda Kenny wasn’t, and Simon Coveney couldn’t?

How ironic now to hear some folks around Fine Gael suggesting that the right response to this one poll is to get Leo to stand back a bit and get Coveney and Donohoe to front more of the campaign.

Writing here in July 2017 I suggested that there was “not so much a Leo bounce as a post Enda recoil”. What I did not foretell was the extent and degree to which the Leo bounce that seemed to return in the polls later that year and through 2018 would be due to the issue of Brexit – including adroit handling of a complex and tricky issue by both Varadkar and his government.

Fine Gael’s eagerness, or was it anxiety, to make Brexit an election issue, with the it is only half time in Brexit messaging, might suggest that Fine Gael’s own polling showed the Leo bounce was less attributable to him than to a policy issue on which there was a cross party consensus.

Nonetheless this is just one poll and it is one that largely predates the election campaign proper. Most Fianna Fáil colleagues I know tell me that they are viewing this poll as a very welcome morale booster, not a cause for celebrations.

In the zero-sum game of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rivalry, a morale booster for the soldiers of destiny is a morale slayer for the Blueshirts. Varadkar is now faced with two options: double down or change strategy.

The evidence points to him doubling down. Could that work for him this time? Probably not.

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