Leo Varadkar has suffered a humiliating defeat. That is being largely forgotten, this morning, with all the talk about the Sinn Fein surge.
The Taoiseach was elected by Fine Gael because they believed him best placed to win a general election. He is young. He is based in Dublin. He is metropolitan, and liberal, and tolerant, and has a personal biography that might as well have been sculpted by Michelangelo for the sole purpose of making Irish Times journalists giddy with excitement. The public, at the first opportunity, have ditched him.
It has become fashionable of late to blame Fine Gael’s campaign solely on Varadkar. There’s some truth to it – he is, or was, the boss. The buck, as a US President once said, stops there. But it’s not all his fault.
When Catherine Noone exploded her own career by calling Varadkar “autistic”, she was probably trying in a ham-fisted way to make the case many others have made. That the Taoiseach is aloof, doesn’t connect with people well, or warmly, and can seem detached and robotic.
But all of those criticisms could have been made – and indeed, were made – of Barack Obama, who won two historic victories. He, too, was detached and aloof, and rarely one for public displays of emotion.
Varadkar didn’t lose yesterday because he is a bad politician. In fact, his career up until yesterday proves that he is, in fact, a very talented politician. He was elected in 2004 at the first time of asking to the council with nearly twice the quota. Until yesterday, he had topped the poll in every Dail election he had ever contested. When he became party leader, the opposition, whatever they said in public, feared him.
The public reacted well, also. He soared to the mid thirties in the opinion polls. Because yesterday went so badly, it will now be fashionable to pretend that the defeat was always certain, and that everyone saw it coming. In truth, very few people did.
If you had asked pundits to stake their houses on the election outcome in December, not one single pundit, including this one, would have predicted Fine Gael to become the third party. In truth, vanishingly few would have predicted them to be the second party. It would have been reasonably conventional wisdom to assert that Fine Gael would emerge the largest party, and that Varadkar would lead a new Government. We were, of course, all wrong.
It was not just a bad campaign. Politicians can survive a bad campaign, because voters fundamentally react to how their own lives are going, much more than they react to who has the best posters or slogans. Bad campaigns win, and good campaigns lose, all the time.
It was, in fact, worse than that. It was that Varadkar forgot who his voters were, and what they wanted.
Fine Gael is supposed to be the party of opportunity, and law and order. It is supposed to be the party of big farmers, and barristers. It is supposed to be socially moderate, and economically conservative. In this guise, it has been winning and losing elections for the entire history of the state. Rarely the most popular, but always clear on who it is representing, and what the interests of those people are.
Varadkar’s Fine Gael forgot all that. The party of big farmers has presided over the worst beef crisis in years, and done little but shrug its shoulders, while simultaneously talking about climate change and the dangers of agricultural emissions. The party of law and order has presided over absurd situations where acid throwers walk free, but onion smugglers do a decade in jail. The party of social moderation has embraced a radically liberal social agenda. The party of the lawyers spent the last day of the campaign attacking a lawyer for representing a client.
And having alienated all those people, whose votes did it seek? It appears that it mistook alliances of convenience during two referendum campaigns for some kind of paradigm shift whereby people who had been voting for Ivana Bacik and Ruth Coppinger all their lives were suddenly going to deliver a Fine Gael majority.
It never seems to have occurred to Fine Gael, and to a lesser extent Fianna Fail, that for a good decade now those parties have been chasing the support of parties that have never won an election in the first place. They’ve been pursuing the traditional Labour voter, when the traditional Labour voter has never gotten the Labour party more than 19% in a national election.
Across the country yesterday, people who were once Fine Gaelers, or Fianna Fáilers, romped home as independents. People like Denis Naughten, and Michael Collins, and Mattie McGrath, and Michael Healy-Rae. Meanwhile the “new Fine Gael” collapsed. Deirdre Duffy got 570 votes. Catherine Noone got 2%. Kate O’Connell, God be Praised, was thrown out of her seat.
Fine Gael, under Varadkar, has become a party with a fundamental identity crisis. It doesn’t know who its own voters are. If it did know, you suspect it would recoil in horror and disgust, and demand that they vote for somebody else. Yesterday, many of them did.
It does not know what its role in Irish politics is, any more. The role it would like – party of the liberal centre left – has much competition. Fine Gael seems to want to scrap for votes with the social democrats and labour and the greens. But why vote Fine Gael when you can just vote for one of those three and get the real thing? Ask a Fine Gaeler what Social Democrat policy they disagree with and watch them scrunch their noses up in deep thought and ponder around for an answer.
Varadkar might yet have a second act, because he remains a talented politician. But he will not have a second act as a leader of this version of Fine Gael. Ironically, it’s a version of Fine Gael he once despised when Garrett Fitzgerald tried – and failed – at the same silly game.
Fine Gael is the party of low taxes, law and order, good prices for beef, and not worrying too much about extreme social ideas as long as there’s bread on the table. If it – or its leader – thinks there are no votes in that any more, they may as well pack the whole thing up and call it a day. Because they’ve forgotten who they are.
And that’s the real humiliation.