On May 8th last, as the Conservatives celebrated a surprise general election victory, Fine Gael TDs still in Leinster House on a Friday morning took heart from David Cameron's unexpected majority . The result, they believed, pointed the way to a strong Fine Gael election result based on a strong economic message clothed in arguments about political stability.
Those at Fine Gael's apex were already a step ahead: plans were already in train for Taoiseach Enda Kenny's closest advisers to visit their Tory counterparts. In July, Kenny's chief of staff Mark Kennelly, Fine Gael general secretary Tom Curran and Mark Mortell, a key political adviser to the Taoiseach, travelled to London for a two-day visit.
The meeting was a closely guarded secret. Many senior figures were unaware of the details. Much of the briefing from the Conservatives was compressed into a day, but contact has been kept up.
Kenny's team had studied Daily Telegraph journalist Tim Ross's book Why the Tories Won: the Inside story of the 2015 Election, drawing three main lessons.
Winning parties are disciplined in their messaging, they must set and dominate the agenda and they must recognise the importance of social media. All three have been more noticeable in Fine Gael’s campaigning.
Once Kenny turned away from a November election, Fine Gael prepared the ground by rolling out elements of its manifesto, all designed to promote its economic competency pitch.
The Conservatives spoke of their “long-term economic plan” to “secure the recovery”. Fine Gael has a “long-term economic plan” to “keep the recovery going”.
However, Fine Gael insists such phrases were planned before the UK election. “We were kind of horrified by the Tory campaign because we knew that they were using language that we were already using,” said one. “We knew that come the election people would say: ‘They’re just using the Tory line.’ And we were like: ‘We were already doing this, this is our language, this is our campaign’.”
One of Fine Gael’s recent plays in its long lead into the campaign proper came when it flagged top-rate universal social charge cuts in its first post-election budget.
Kenny had planned to tell party members in an email. Borrowing from Barack Obama adviser Jim Messina's dictum that every day not spent talking about the economy is wasted, Fine Gael intended to dominate an entire week.
However, Fine Gael deputy leader James Reilly upset the agenda, calling for a repeal of the Eighth Amendment in a Sunday newspaper interview. Kenny was livid, giving Reilly a dressing down. He brought forward plans for a post-election constitutional review on abortion, with a free vote later for his TDs. It doused the flames.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael seized some of Labour's ground, promising a "working family payment" to low-paid couples. Labour complained that taxpayers would give top-ups to businesses that paid low wages. Fine Gael shrugged. "We don't care if people are criticising our policies," said one Minister, "as long as they are talking about them."
Fine Gael argues that it highlighted the distance between it and the Tories, since the latter had wanted to cut existing tax credits for low-earners, before they were forced to backtrack.
Every election in the last decade has been called the “first social-media election”. This time, though, it will be. “In the last five years there has been a revolution at least twice in social media,” said one Fine Gael source. “The Tories did an absolutely spectacular job, absolutely spectacular.”
The Conservative digital campaign was led by Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds of Edmonds Elder – who now act as consultants to Fine Gael.
The Tories were able to use an English fear of the Scottish Nationalist Party to drive middle-ground voters their way. There is no directly comparable situation here, however.
Fine Gael has gleefully encouraged recent stories speculating on the possibility of a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition – a “wedge issue” that could shift some opinion.
A close relationship with the Conservatives could be damaging. One senior Labour figure claimed they “are playing with fire”. Fine Gael sources argue such details interest Leinster House but nowhere else. “We are not the Irish Tory party,” said one Minister. “We are not copying policies, but we are learning from their strategy. You’d be stupid not to do so.”
However, the Tories majored on fear. Fine Gael will do so on hope, with just a soupçon of fear. “There will be a little bit of that, but there will definitely a lot more of hope. Their campaign was absolutely dominated by fear.”
Labour's question is whether Fine Gael will target its seats in the way the Conservatives went for Liberal Democrat ones – but Ireland is not the United Kingdom.
Asked if Fine Gael would do so, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan last week laughed: "That's a dreadful suggestion, I couldn't possibly comment. That's too low a comment to draw me out."
Ireland’s proportional representation system does not allow for the targeting of a small group of swing seats. “That would be stupid,” said one when asked if Labour should be worried. “If we are going to be back in government, the best way is with the Labour Party.”
Labour will hope Fine Gael is true to its word.