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Varadkar’s poll bounce of 15 points restores popular appeal

Fine Gael unable to pull away from the rest despite Taoiseach’s surge in personal rating

Today's poll has good news for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Government and is likely to turbocharge the push in Fine Gael to hold an election if a Brexit deal is struck this month.

After a lengthy and, for Fine Gael, excruciating decline in Varadkar’s personal ratings, today’s poll sees him rebuilding popularity on the back of Brexit and the strong economy – even though voters do not expect to be wealthier on the back of last week’s budget.

Varadkar’s personal rating has risen a whopping 15 points since May, returning to the very high levels he enjoyed in his first year as Taoiseach.

Just as some kind of honeymoon period for the Fine Gael leader was to be expected, so too was the inevitable return to earth. The first two phases have now played out. The less predictable question is: what comes next?


Voters are impressed with his management of Brexit, where 60 per cent are satisfied with the Government’s performance, with just over a quarter (26 per cent) expressing dissatisfaction.

They also back the Government – albeit by a tighter margin – on its handling of the economy, where 54 per cent say it is doing a good job, against 36 per cent who say it is doing a bad job. Even 56 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters approve of the Government's economic management.

Approval for the Government on the economy comes when only a small percentage of voters (6 per cent) say they will be better off as a result of the budget – suggesting some support for a fiscal approach the Government has promoted as cautious and prudent. Just under one-third of voters (32 per cent) say they will be worse off, while 58 per cent say the budget will make no difference.

In each case, strongest support for the Government comes from older voters, Dublin voters and better-off voters.

So there is encouragement for the Government in today’s numbers. But there is an obvious question also: if the Taoiseach’s numbers are up, and his Government’s rating is up, and voters approve of his handling of the economy and of Brexit, then why is Fine Gael support stuck on 29 per cent?

Why is all that not showing itself in an increase in support? Brexit and the budget may provide Fine Gael with a platform from which to speak to voters during any campaign, and they may help Varadkar cut through. But these issues will not in themselves win the election for him. Elections tend to be about the future.

Core vote

So yes, Fine Gael maintains its small – but not insignificant – lead. Although there’s little between the big two. When you look at “core” vote for the parties – that is before undecideds and those unlikely to vote were excluded – compared with the last Irish Times poll in May, Fine Gael is up one point to 22 per cent, Fianna Fáil is on 20 per cent (no change). With Fianna Fáil’s record of beating the polls when it comes to election day, there’s nothing between them.

The rest of the core votes are: Sinn Féin 12 per cent (no change); Labour 5 per cent (down one); Greens 6 per cent (up three); Independents/others 15 per cent (no change). Undecided voters are at 20 per cent, down three points since the last poll.

But if there is little move for the big parties today, the same cannot be said for the Greens – who double their support to 8 per cent, with its backing strongest in Dublin and urban areas, among younger voters and better-off voters.

The news for Sinn Féin is gloomy. Party support continues to fall and is now 10 points lower than it was a year ago. Mary Lou McDonald remains the party leader under most pressure.

Sinn Féin supporters could fairly say that the 14 per cent in today’s poll is the same level as it achieved in the last general election when it won 23 seats. But they know, or should know, that Sinn Féin has a consistent record of underperforming opinion polls when it comes to election day.

In other words it’s fair to assume that if the party is at 14 per cent in the polls it is likely to win a few points less in an election, meaning the party is on course to lose a scatter of seats.

Labour treads water, down a point, and still reliant on several strong candidates to win seats in a few constituencies. There is no general recovery for the party, but there is a chance it could return with enough seats to be an important player when the next government is being put together.

And on the basis of these numbers what will that government look like? More questions than answers today. The race in all its aspects is wide open.