Leo Varadkar gets food for election thought from latest opinion poll

Parties want to fight elections when strong, Fine Gael maintains lead over Fianna Fáil

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and  Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD during a visit to the O’Devaney Gardens project in Dublin 7 on Monday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD during a visit to the O’Devaney Gardens project in Dublin 7 on Monday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

As Taoiseach Leo Varadkar mulls what may be the most fateful decision of his political career – the future of the confidence-and-supply agreement and the prospects for an early general election – today’s opinion poll will encourage those around Varadkar who are beating the election drums.

Parties want to fight elections when they are strong, and today’s numbers show that Fine Gael maintains a strong eight-point lead over Fianna Fáil.

A year ago, it was two points. In that period it has gone from two to 11 to nine to five and then to eight today. Polls fluctuate, and there’s a margin of error. Things change during a campaign. But there’s a pretty consistent trend of Fine Gael leading Fianna Fáil now. The average in polls over the last year is eight points. Reproduced on election day, it would give Varadkar a commanding lead and put him in a strong position to lead the next government.

The Fianna Fáil leader is looking over both his shoulders at his often restive party, fed up with playing second fiddle to Fine Gael, and at Sinn Féin, within touching distance of him today.

Neither challenge is new to Micheál Martin, currently engaged in a delicate dance with Varadkar over the extension of confidence and supply. But never has his leadership of his party looked more like juggling on a tightrope than it does today. He has managed the task with some aplomb; but it must be a fraught business for his inner circle.

The approval ratings for the major party leaders with Taoisceach and leader of Fine Gael Leo Varadkar leading; followed by Fianna Fáil's Michael Martin, Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald and Labour's Brendan Howlin
The approval ratings for the major party leaders with Taoisceach and leader of Fine Gael Leo Varadkar leading; followed by Fianna Fáil's Michael Martin, Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald and Labour's Brendan Howlin

Party loyalists

Two important caveats, based on past experience, should be added to these numbers, though. One is that in the last election, Fianna Fáil support increased in the general election campaign period. And it did in the one before that too. That suggests that there are some natural or historic party loyalists who tend to “come home” during a campaign. That might not happen again of course; but precedent suggests there’s a good chance it will.

The second thing is that Sinn Féin’s support on election day rarely matches their mid-term levels. What tends to happen is the party’s support peaks between elections but falls off towards polling day. In October 2014, the party was at 24 per cent; it fell back to 14 per cent by the 2016 election. Today, it’s back at 24 per cent. Mary Lou McDonald may have changed the profile of the party; but has she changed it enough?

The aggregate support for the fourth pillar of Irish politics, the Independents (governing and non-governing alike) and small parties (not including Labour), slips again today, down two points to 14 per cent. This is less than half the 30 per cent that this umbrella grouping received in the last general election, before some of their number joined the Government.

Though it protests it is not a party – and certainly lacks the coherence of one – the Independent Alliance seems to be experiencing the traditional fate of a small party in coalition with a larger one: decimation. Its support registers at just 1 per cent nationally today.

Major parties approval ratings from MRBI poll with Fine Gael leading the pack
Major parties approval ratings from MRBI poll with Fine Gael leading the pack

Fractured support

It is not alone in that. All the minnows register in the 1-2-3 per cent range: Solidarity-People Before Profit (3 per cent); The Greens (2 per cent); the Social Democrats (1 per cent); Independents for Change (2 per cent); other groupings or parties (1 per cent); not stated (1 per cent). Only those who respondents say are “not a member of any group” (4 per cent) get their noses past 3 per cent. It has long been apparent that one of the post-crash effects on Irish politics was a fracturing of a part of the political spectrum. Today’s poll confirms that the fractions are getting smaller.

Labour, meanwhile, trundles along with little sign of a revival. It is down one today to four per cent.

Varadkar doesn’t get things all his own way. His satisfaction slips by four points today (after falling by five in April), though it remains high by recent historical comparison. Satisfaction with the Government also falls away, down by five points to 39 per cent, though again that is high by post-crash standards. The other party leaders are largely unchanged.

Voters are underwhelmed by Paschal Donohoe’s budget, with the great majority of voters saying that it will make no difference to them. Even Fine Gael supporters shrug at it.

However, Varadkar – one-time champion of tax cuts for those who get up early in the morning – will likely note that almost half of voters (47 per cent) would have preferred a greater emphasis on tax cuts rather than public spending increases in the budget.

But it is the findings today about the public’s attitude to a general election that will attract most interest in political circles, as everyone watches Varadkar and Martin circle each other warily.

Voters are pretty evenly divided on whether they want the present Government to continue, or to have an election. The view in some circles that the public are firmly against an election – and that anyone who caused one would be punished – is not borne out here.

Brexit remains a significant barrier to an election – and in truth, it is difficult to see how either major party leader could prompt one in the midst of such uncertainty – but the voters appear pretty sanguine on the question. That will come as a surprise. Rarely has the immediate future of Irish politics looked more unpredictable.