Does Fine Gael secretly want a second General Election?

An interesting report in the Examiner the other day that, with all the Coronavirus news, got a little bit overlooked. But it’s genuinely surprising that it’s taken this long for something like this to be floated:

A number of Fine Gael ministers do not believe a government can be formed and that a second general election will be needed.

The ministers believe an agreement can be reached with Fianna Fáil but that no other party will step up and enter government, forcing the country to vote again.

The ministers were speaking as it emerged that the joint policy paper from the two parties will now not be agreed until tomorrow as a scheduled meeting has been delayed by 24 hours.

The recent general election was, of course, a disaster for Fine Gael. But it also produced no obvious Government, which is why we’re presently in a situation where the country is being governed by people with no democratic mandate from the voters, and a cabinet with several ministers who were voted out of elected office nearly two months ago, like Regina Doherty, Katherine Zappone, and Shane Ross.

The odd thing about all of it is that because of the crisis, few of the opposition parties suddenly seem very eager to entertain forming a Government at all. Remember those heady post election days when Mary Lou McDonald was holding rallies around the country to demonstrate support for a Sinn Fein government? If you do, you probably think they happened last decade. But no. Six weeks ago.

Sinn Fein haven’t sounded very eager to form a Government since then, have they? And they’re not alone either. As the Examiner notes, the smaller lefty parties aren’t exactly lining up for a go at running the country either.

Which leaves us with the ongoing charade of talks between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on policy and agreeing a “common framework” and all of that.

The problem, if there is a problem forming a FF/FG Government, will not be policy. There’s a reason nobody’s identified in public what the policy sticking points are in these negotiations – it’s because any such row would be entirely imaginary. And it won’t be numbers, either. The attempt to spin the Examiner that they can’t form a Government without a smaller party is just that – spin. There’s a perfectly stable Government, numerically, to be formed with the support of rural independent TDs. Both parties know this – FF had a perfectly stable five year Government supported by independents from 1997-2002, and Fine Gael’s present cabinet has independent ministers in it, like Finian McGrath and the aforementioned Zappone.

No, the problem for FF and FG is more existential – prestige and personality, which is what will eventually collapse the whole thing.

Fianna Fáil is the numerically larger party, and therefore no arrangement that does not have Micheál Martin as Taoiseach will be acceptable to them. But Leo Varadkar is the Taoiseach today, and he’s an immensely more popular Taoiseach now than he was six weeks ago.

The most recent opinion poll – taken during the crisis, put Fine Gael on 34% – almost a doubling of their support since the election – and Fianna Fáil on 18%, a fall in theirs, leaving them as the third party in terms of support.

And yet, it is seriously being pretended, the leader of the third most popular party in the country is about to assume the mantle of Taoiseach, displacing a fellow who, for the moment at least, is almost universally beloved? Come on, lads. That’s not happening.

In fact, it’s arguable that Fianna Fáil, just as so often under Martin’s hapless leadership, is walking head first into a trap. When these negotiations collapse, as they likely will, a reason for the failure will have to be found. It’s very easy to imagine Fine Gael saying something like:

“We agreed a stable policy framework with Fianna Fáil for the next five years, but we simply could not agree to their demands that the most crucial Government personnel be changed in the middle of a crisis simply to fulfil Micheál Martin’s personal ambitions”.

Whether it’s that, or whether it’s the much less convincing “we needed the Greens but they said no”, it’s very hard to argue that a second election wouldn’t substantially benefit Fine Gael.

There are good arguments for one from both a political and a moral perspective. On the political end, the country needs stable Government, and it’s readily apparent that the current Dáil is unable or unwilling to provide it. On the moral front, no party has a mandate to deal with the economic fallout of the crisis. It’s right to consult the people.

And of course, Fine Gael, on 34%, and with fond memories (for some reason) of FG’s handling of the crisis fresh in the electorate’s minds, and a message of “come on, do you trust this rabble on the opposition benches to get us through this mess?”, might stand to do very well indeed.

Right after the first election, I wrote here that “a second election looks likely” purely on the basis that it would be impossible to form a Government. The only thing that’s changed now is that the man with the power to call for a second election is much more popular than he was, and has a much better chance of winning one.

It’s a pity the bookies are all closed. Because GE2 is a good bet, whenever the country opens again.

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