Brexit boost will not be enough to win Fine Gael an election
The party is agonising over timing of vote but getting the message right is more important
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar rolls the sleeves up on an outing with Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Ordered to maintain a solemn and sombre silence on matters Brexity all day Wednesday, some of the Fine Gael Ministers who gathered for a meeting with the Taoiseach on Wednesday evening were inwardly feeling a little giddy.
The text of the draft agreement between the EU and the UK was about to be published, but as the Taoiseach (violating his own order for zipped lips) had let slip to those who were listening closely in the Dáil earlier in the day, the deal was as good – better, indeed – for Ireland as they could reasonably have hoped.
The Northern Ireland backstop had become a UK-wide backstop, thus ensuring no barriers to east-west trade, which is economically much more important for Ireland than north-south trade, despite the constant emphasis on the latter. The backstop was legally operable, not time-limited and the UK could not unilaterally back out out of it. It was, by any measure, a good result for Ireland.
And the Fine Gaelers remembered that almost a year ago, when the political declaration of December 2017 was published at the European Council in Brussels and first included the Irish backstop, their party and their leader saw a rocket-like boost in the polls. They remember how it left him and them with the highest ratings in the polls since the days of Bertie Ahern. They remember that very well. Immediately, the chat was all about a general election. They could hardly help themselves.
A long discussion on political matters ensued, I am told, that dwelt on the progress of the talks on confidence and supply with Fianna Fáil. Some Ministers expressed the strong view that Fine Gael should now turn up the pressure in the talks, which have been trundling along at a somewhat pedestrian pace in recent weeks. Most significantly, perhaps, the Taoiseach told the Ministers that the window for a pre-Christmas election had now more or less closed. Talk turned to next year, and when the optimal timing for an election would be in the event that there was no agreement to renew the confidence-and-supply deal. One early and obvious conclusion: not January, February or March. Though that is hardly the most original gem of political wisdom.
I’ve been of the view for months that the uncertainty surrounding Brexit meant an election this year was impossible, but it remained a constant subject of discussion within the party. As Wednesday’s ministerial pow-wow attests, it still is.
As far as I can see, there seems to be an inordinate amount of chatter about the timing of the election, and not so much about what the party will actually say to voters when the campaign comes.
It is true that, having misjudged the timing of its last two re-election campaigns (in 2015 and 1997), there is understandable concern in Fine Gael about getting it right this time. The Taoiseach, say those close to him, is an assiduous student of such matters (this is easy to believe). But recalling history is one thing; understanding it is another.
And while timing in politics is important, it actually isn’t everything. Fine Gael didn’t bomb in the last election because the vote was in February 2016 instead of November 2015; the party bombed because the message – “Keep the recovery going” – fell flat among lots of people who felt that the economic recovery hadn’t reached them.
In other words Fine Gael told the country it would keep things going as they were, when lots of people were dissatisfied with the way things were going.
There has also been a good deal of thought in Fine Gael about the mood music in the next election campaign. There’ll be lots of Varadkar dashing around the country with his sleeves rolled up trying to look like the future. One aide jokes that he will remove the sleeve buttons on the Cabinet’s shirts to promote the “sleeves rolled up, working hard” motif. Micheál Martin is the past; Leo is the future. A young leader for a young country. That kind of stuff.
What I hear less about is what Fine Gael will actually tell voters it proposes to do about the pressing problems facing the country – health, housing, the cost of living – about which the private research of the parties is telling them that voters are becoming increasingly impatient. They need to show they have a plan. They need to show it will work – whatever their sleeve length.
That’s what the ardfheis this weekend should be about. There’ll be lots of swooning at Varadkar and his Ministers, lots of slick presentations, lots of praise for deft Brexitmanship.
There will be talk of how Varadkar is building a new centrist coalition that is making Fine Gael the natural party of government.
But the ardfheis won’t be a success if it only projects Varadkar as a national leader. People already know he’s the Taoiseach. This weekend also needs to show he has a plan for the future. As we’ve said before, politics is about the future, not the past.
As to the timing of the election, everyone should relax. Like nearly everything else, it won’t be settled until the British figure out what they want to do on Brexit.
Two and a half years after the referendum, that is quite the indictment of the state of British political leadership – once renowned around the world for its clarity, cleverness and strategic nous, now it’s an object of bewilderment and bemusement. But it is what it is, they are where they are.
We all wait on the fate of Mrs May. Behind the bravado and the bonhomie in Citywest today, that applies to Fine Gael, too.