Byelections are bye bye elections
In his column on Saturday, this paper’s political editor Stephen Collins outlined (using many historical examples) why there is an, ahem, certain reluctance on the part of the Government to call any of the three byelections in a hurry. He also argued that the precedent shows that the more you delay the more you are damaged.
History will give Brian Cowen little succour. The last incumbent Government to win a byelection was Fianna Fail and that was almost 30 years ago, when Noel Treacy won Galway East in 1982. Since then the opposition has triumphed in these mini-plebiscites on the Government’s performance.
If a Government is strong, it makes little difference. The Fianna Fail and PD coalition lost both the Meath and Kildare byelections in 2005; the opposition claimed the government was on its last legs; and, it didn’t really have any long-term effect.
But this Government is in a weak and increasingly vulnerable position. Not alone will the loss of three seats to the opposition make its majority precarious, it will also leave Brian Cowen exposed. If the Government parties are trounced, then most people (including Fianna Fail backbenchers) will take two things from it: Cowen is a gonner and the Government is doomed.
The results of two of the byelections are foregone conclusions. Dublin South will go to the opposition (possibly Labour) and Waterford will also go to the opposition (probably Fine Gael). Donegal South West should be a lost cause for the Government too. But there are imponderables there. The biggest threat seems to come from Sinn Fein and not Fine Gael. There is a possibility (very slim, I think, and also unlikely) that people will vote tactically to prevent Pearse Doherty taking the seat. But even Donegal South West is wishful thinking for FF.
For a long time, I have been calling a later rather than earlier election. The events of this year, including Martin Cullen’s shock resignation, have given my predictions a bit of a wobble. But I still believe that the Government will survive well into 2011 and perhaps into 2012.
I think Cowen and his senior colleagues know that this will be his only shot. He has been a disappointment as Taoiseach. His early speeches signalled a return to a more altruistic, a more patriotic, and humbler Fianna Fail than of the Celtic Tiger but Cowen hasn’t't possessed the boundless energy or force of personality to drive that vision through. His perf0rmance and public engagemetns have been sporadic and have lacked consistency. He needed to inspire people as to his vision and ambitions. He has failed to do so.
The best that Fianna Fail can hope for is for a Gordon Brown revival. Brown looked scunnered last year but managed to contain Labour losses. A three-term Government lost office but wasn’t destroyed.
At this moment of time, if there were an election, Fianna Fail would get an unprecedented hammering. Its strategy will be to continue the course and doggedly pursue its austerity measures. Then, the hope is the economy will recover, and that Cowen and Lenihan will get enough kudos for pulling the country back from the abyss. Electorally, that will still mean a loss but a containable loss.
For backbenchers, Cowen is a real problem. There used to be a small rump of malcontents but there are quite a few rebels and potential rebels now, comprised of sacked ministers, backbenchers denied promotion, and other backbenchers unhappy with Government performance and/or really worried about their seats.
Their problem? Well, it’s no solution to oust Brian Cowen. Whoever replaces Brian Cowen will become Brian Cowen: immediately. The only new leaders who might escape an immediate hammering would be Brian Lenihan (ruled out because of illness) and Mary Hanafin (though there would be little point in her making a run for the top job before the next election).
The narrative of this Government has been more Macbeth than Biggles.
Sorry for the gory quote from the Scottish play but it’s apt as far as Brian Cowen is concerned:
“I am in blood steeped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”
The byeections will bring further pain for Cowen. But at this stage perhaps the Government is impervious to electoral pain. This cycle will run its course. It will have an unpretty end for the Government.
How unpretty? It’s too early to call. Some of my colleagues think a wipeout. I’m not convinced but all will depend on the performance of the economy in the next 12 months. Politically, Cowen’s efforts to portray himself as the saviour of the economy will be doomed as he is also seen as a destroyer of the economy.
Damage limitation is the name of the game. That’s the most he can hope for.