The Irish Times view on Fine Gael: moving into election mode

It is difficult to predict how voters who endorse Leo Varadkar’s Brexit strategy will balance that with their concerns about housing, health and the public finances

While the polls show that Leo Varadkar remains the most popular party leader and Fine Gael is holding its position as the biggest party, both have slipped from the heady heights achieved in the immediate aftermath of his accession. Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP

While the polls show that Leo Varadkar remains the most popular party leader and Fine Gael is holding its position as the biggest party, both have slipped from the heady heights achieved in the immediate aftermath of his accession. Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP

 

Fine Gael delegates attending the party’s national conference in Wexford this weekend are acutely aware that they are facing into crucial elections in the months ahead at a very important time in the country’s history.

The European and local elections will take place on May 24th and the wide expectation among political activists of all parties is that a general election is likely to follow within six months once the Brexit issue is settled for better or worse.

Brexit has been the dominant issue facing the Fine Gael-led minority government since Leo Varadkar took over as party leader and Taoiseach in the summer of 2017. His handling of the issue, and in particular the strong position he has taken in dealing with the British government, has resonated with the public.

The constantly repeated charge of the Opposition that the Government is ignoring the concerns of rural Ireland will hit home

Although his determination to stick by the Border backstop could potentially derail the agreement British Prime Minister Theresa May has secured with the European Union, it appears that popular opinion is behind him. It is a matter for debate as to whether that might change if there is a damaging no-deal Brexit. For now all the indications are that the Taoiseach has the support of the vast bulk of the electorate for his approach.

Whether that mood will translate into enough votes to return Varadkar to office is the question nagging at the party’s TDs as they ponder the next election. The responsibility for making the call on the timing is Varadkar’s alone and it could be the biggest decision of his political life.

While the polls show he remains the most popular party leader and Fine Gael is holding its position as the biggest party, both have slipped from the heady heights achieved in the immediate aftermath of his accession. TDs know that an election bounce will be needed to propel the party back to power.

Achieving that after eight years in office, and the inevitable wear and tear inflicted on a Government in situ for so long, represents a formidable task. A lot will hinge on the kind of campaign that Fine Gael wages. The last election proved that fortunes can change in the course of a campaign and the next one is likely to be no different.

It is difficult to predict how voters who endorse Varadkar’s Brexit strategy will balance that with their concerns about day-to-day issues like housing, health and the public finances – the handling of which has raised serious questions about the Government’s competence – or whether the constantly repeated charge of the Opposition that the Government is ignoring the concerns of rural Ireland will hit home.

Many voters have no love for this Government and are rightly critical of how they have handled specific issues, but one thing Varadkar and his ministers have going for them is that, on current poll numbers, alternative coalition configurations will not materialise easily.

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