Cowen & Co in Freefall
Deaglán de Bréadún
Politics can be a fickle business. After his innovative and decisive action in apparently preventing a partial collapse of the banking system, Brian Cowen’s popularity soared. If an opinion poll had been held at that point in time, his ratings would in all likelihood have been astronomical.
The decision to bring forward the Budget also had a smack of decisive leadership. People like that, particularly at the onset of a crisis. But bringing the Budget forward may be one of the reasons the detail wasn’t well thought-out.
Cowen’s predecessor Bertie Ahern was very good at seeing around corners and as an indefatigable canvasser and knocker-on-doors, even when there was no election in sight, he would in all probability have known any move to introduce limits on the provision of medical cards to the over-70s was fraught with danger.
Cowen & Co rushed in where the “Bert” would have feared to tread. The over-70s are unlike other groups outside the workforce (the social welfare classes if you like) in that they are highly-politicised, generally well-educated – and they vote.
Fianna Fáil have generally been very good at keeping this sector of the population on side. The medical card fiasco suggested the Soldiers of Destiny may be losing their touch.
The education cuts, serious though they were for those affected by them, failed to achieve the same level of political traction. But then we had the cervical cancer vaccine issue which, despite protestations to the contrary, still came across badly and led to another TD – Dr Jim McDaid – withholding his support from the Government.
Now we have the Irish Times/TNS mrbi opinion poll which is the worst-ever performance by a Government since the paper began its surveys many years ago. You would normally expect a poor poll-rating after an austerity budget, and that provides a certain amount of comfort to the administration in power, but these figures were outside that comfort-zone. They were simply disastrous (Satisfied with Government: 18 Per Cent; Dissatisfied: 76 Per Cent; for more information on the poll, click here.)
All is not lost, say Government supporters. Look at Gordon Brown’s miraculous recovery from his political death-bed, they say. Sorry folks but, to continue with these morbid analogies, you may be whistling past the graveyard.
The Taoiseach’s personal style has now become an issue. I wasn’t in the Dáil chamber the other morning when Cowen had his latest confrontation with the Opposition but a colleague tells me that when he unleashed his inner Rottweiler on them, the faces on the Fine Gael front-bench broke into broad grins: “We’ve provoked him again.” It’s the kind of thing that comes across very badly on the Nine O’Clock News.
The Government’s hope is that people will finally absorb the lesson that the economy is in dire straits and we need drastic remedial action which will include cuts and savings that may appear harsh but are in fact necessary. When the “Nimbyism” (Not In My Back Yard) about different cuts finally fades away, the polls will begin to turn and it will be safe to go to the country, or so FF and the Greens are hoping.
A general election is not technically required for another four years but the way Government support is eroding in the Dáil, we are likely to see one before that. It’s little more than six months to the local and European elections and if the Government gets a hammering, which seems quite likely at this stage, it will further erode Cowen’s authority.
Would anyone else do a better job? Enda Kenny is a good grass-roots politician but still has to register properly at the national level and his personal poll rating has declined. Will FF ditch their leader in favour of someone else – Dermot Ahern or Micheal Martin perhaps? And why is Labour down one point at a time of unprecedented discontent with the Government (admittedly their leader’s rating has increased)?
Whoever was in power, the broad thrust of economic and budgetary policy would be very similar. Cut, cut and cut again and hope the weather improves on the international front. This Government’s twin problems are: 1) Lack of political sensitivity due to being somewhat out of touch with the people; 2) Deficiencies in personal political style and communications skills: they need to look, talk and act more like leaders.
No wonder people gaze with such envy at the United States just now. Barack Obama oozes charisma, sophistication and style from every pore. And it has to be said that it is hard to think of anyone in Irish politics who compares with the President-Elect in these respects.
The level of grumbling with Cowen in media circles continues to grow. There is no particular focus, as there was with Bertie at the Mahon Tribunal when journalists virtually made careers out of picking and probing at particular pieces of evidence. But from talking to a wide range of colleagues working for very different outlets, one can detect that whatever goodwill there was towards Cowen & Co has started to evaporate. It’s another ominous development for the Government.
Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent