Varadkar’s Brexit performance may be main factor in FG lift

He has projected an image of standing up for Ireland – a good look for any Taoiseach

Leo Varadkar: the last time a taoiseach had this sort of approval rating was in July 2011. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Leo Varadkar: the last time a taoiseach had this sort of approval rating was in July 2011. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

It is a lesson that has to be regularly relearned. Not every political crisis actually breaks through into the public consciousness, and therefore their political consequences are hard to judge. In other words: lots of voters don’t pay as much attention to politics as do the political classes in Leinster House, in the media and online.

Today’s example: l’affaire Fitzgerald. Last week the Government almost toppled into a Christmas general election, a crisis that was only averted at the last minute with the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald from the Cabinet. The crisis was not caused by Leo Varadkar – its roots lay in the long-time mismanagement of the case of the Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe – but his handling of the crisis made it worse and brought his administration to the brink. Only a humiliating climbdown and his deputy’s resignation averted disaster. Gloomy prognostications about the Taoiseach’s standing abounded.

A week later, and the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll shows that Varadkar’s Government thunders ahead. Approval for the Government is up. Approval for its leader is up (the last time a taoiseach had this sort of approval rating was in July 2011). A majority of voters believe the country is on the right track. Fine Gael support is up, Fianna Fáil is down. After more than a year of a statistical dead heat between the two big rivals, Fine Gael goes into Christmas with a substantial lead.

Moving on up

One poll does not make a trend, and the trend is always, always the thing to watch. Today’s 36 per cent (up 5 per cent) is quite a jump in support for Fine Gael, and big jumps in support are often not sustained. But Fine Gael’s numbers have been edging up steadily since the summer of last year. Whatever about the quantum, that’s a trend.

The explanation that people don’t care all that much about stuff like Fitzgerald’s resignation only gets you so far. Not blaming Varadkar is one thing. But why reward him – especially at the expense of Micheál Martin?

The answer may lie in the timing of the poll. The sampling was completed on Monday and Tuesday – just at the height of the Brexit controversy which saw Varadkar first promise a deal with the UK and then cry foul as the British - in the Irish narrative anyway – resiled from the agreement. The Taoiseach dominated news coverage on a subject – Brexit – that people definitely do care about. And he projected an image of a leader standing up for Ireland. Quantitative polls don’t offer reasons for the fluctuations, but this is a good look for any Taoiseach.

The boost in Fine Gael support also points to a political paradox. While being in Government is fraught with political perils, as voters hold government parties responsible for shortcomings in public services and so on, it also offers great political advantages. Government has the ultimate political tool: the power of executive action. Utilise this in a way approved of by the public and a government can utterly dominate politics.

After a long period in which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rose in tandem, that trend is arrested – for now anyway. Above, Micheál Martin. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
After a long period in which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rose in tandem, that trend is arrested – for now anyway. Above, Micheál Martin. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

FF out of step

Fianna Fáil understands the political power of government like no other party – which is why some of its members are so keen to return there. But today’s poll does not signal an imminent return. After a long period in which Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael rose gradually but in tandem, that trend is arrested – for now anyway.

Sinn Féin and Labour both maintain the levels of support – 19 per cent and 4 per cent – seen not just in the most recent poll, but (within the margin of error) since the last general election. Labour’s challenge remains as gargantuan as ever, and it’s hard to see progress. Alan Kelly elbowed his way into the Frances Fitzgerald controversy, and perhaps that will pay off for him. But there’s no wider effect for his party. Sinn Féin awaits the post-Adams era, the ceiling on party support still intact.

Support for Independents, others and small parties remains, in aggregate terms, about half of what it was at the last election. The fractured nature of this part of the political spectrum makes trends almost impossible to track: the numbers are just too small. Solidarity/People Before Profit is at 1 per cent; the Social Democrats are at 1 per cent; the Independent Alliance is at 1 per cent; Independents 4 Change are at 1 per cent; others are at 2 per cent; nonaligned independents are at 5 per cent; the Greens are at 3 per cent.

This scattering is, in electoral terms, inherently unpredictable. That trend shows no sign of changing.

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