Fine Gael may be energised but it is not ready for election
Failure of Leo Varadkar to outline grand vision is creating anxiety within party
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will seek to introduce changes to Fine Gael’s rules at the party’s national conference in November.
Fine Gael is still basking from the glory of its new leader Leo Varadkar, but there is a growing sense that the Taoiseach is failing to capitalise on the energy generated by his expertly executed leadership campaign.
Varadkar ran a meticulous and vigorous campaign that saw him take over as leader of Fine Gael and then as Taoiseach. However, almost three months later, he has yet to outline his party-political ambitions or clearly identify his Government priorities.
His key allies insist it is a deliberate strategy. One said: “It would be unwise to try to create a distance from the Kenny era. Leo was a significant part of that. The first few months were about keeping things steady as she goes.”
The upcoming months will be significant. The budget will be an opportunity to assess if Varadkar and Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe possess the political skills necessary, not just the PR.
Next week’s gathering of Fine Gael TDs and Senators will also be an important building block, offering Varadkar the chance to flesh out a picture of what Fine Gael and the Government will look like under his tenure.
However, Varadkar knows it is not the Fine Gael party he has to win over. Making a grand speech indoors to already-converted troops would be a waste. However, the failure to outline his grand vision is creating some anxiety within the party.
“He has yet to tell the country how he envisages he can make a difference to their lives, but I think or hope you’ll see the start of that at the think-in,” one Minister told The Irish Times.
Republic of opportunity
As Taoiseach, Varadkar has spoken of creating a republic of opportunity and helping the people “who get up early”, but this is not a message that will alone be sufficient for the next election.
In the absence of a clear and defined message it is quite clear Fine Gael is not election-ready. Last time the party concentrated exclusively on the economy, pledging to “keep the recovery going”, though the message was greeted poorly on the doorsteps.
Next time the Taoiseach must mould a message that chimes with the generational change Fine Gael is undergoing, but one that does not isolate certain sections of the electorate.
The party is also in a race against time to identify and select general-election candidates. There are a number of electoral black spots, most notably in Tipperary. If Fine Gael is to win the next general election it must secure more than 60 seats.
It needs to better its performance, particularly in Munster, and shore up the seats it has in Dublin. In key five-seater constituencies including Cavan-Monaghan and Kerry it needs to win two seats. Fine Gael currently has only one TD in each.
None of the main political parties are financially or emotionally equipped to fight a general election, but Fine Gael appears less prepared than most.
Varadkar has made some subtle but significant changes to the party since taking office. Last month he wrote to every constituency chairperson requesting their views on the forthcoming budget. Varadkar asked them to hold meetings during September, and discuss their priorities ahead of the meeting next month.
Members were offered a number of options including abolishing the lowest rate of universal social charge (USC) on incomes up to €12,000, reducing the 5 per cent USC rate to 4 per cent, widening the basic income tax band, reducing the higher rate of tax or assisting self-employed.
On the expenditure side, members can choose from increasing the State pension, increasing all social welfare payments, increasing the living-alone allowance or increasing child benefit.
Replies are expected at the end of September, and are aimed at offering Fine Gael members a stake in formulating party policy.
Varadkar will also seek to introduce changes to the party rules at the national conference in November. Minor amendments are anticipated, including the establishment of a new rolling manifesto.
On Tuesday he held his second monthly meeting of Fine Gael Ministers and Ministers of State. Senior staff including general secretary Tom Curran, party chairman Martin Heydon, Seanad leader Jerry Buttimer and chairman of the national executive Gerry O’Connell also attend.
A key Fine Gael figure explains: “It is basic stuff, but we do not always do basic stuff in politics, especially when in Government. It is protected space to talk about the party, and have the key people brainstorming. It is clear there is a new sheriff in town. Already his leadership is being felt, and that is one example.”
Fine Gael had been on pause until Kenny finally laid out his departure plan. It spent the aftermath of the 2016 general election licking its wounds and contemplating the future of its leader.
The subsequent campaign between Varadkar and Simon Coveney energised Fine Gael, even if the outcome was known early on. It resuscitated members who had consigned it to the Opposition benches after the next general election. The media fixated on the debate, and Fine Gael rose in the polls.
It is too early to judge Varadkar. The ground hurling will begin when the Dáil resumes.