Now that we have the full list of members of the Seanad and their party affiliations, we can make comparative chart between the sizes of parliamentary parties after this election and after the 2007 election.
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Does Fine Gael need a change in leadership to hope to lead the next government? No, but it might still be a good idea.
Whether or not Richard Bruton decides to challenge Enda Kenny’s leadership of the party at the parliamentary party, Fine Gael has the policies at hand to convince people that we should lead government. We will win based on policies, such as NewEra, which should be sold for what it is, a plan to improve our competitiveness by introducing a business orientation to the provision of services like broadband, water and energy, or NewPolitics, which will reduce the scale of our government institutions while increasing accountability and accessibility. We should convince people on the basis of the positions we have taken over the years, whether in opposing elements of social partnership like benchmarking, or in the past two years, taking a case-by-case rather than a populist approach to government actions. Here Fine Gael should be seen favourably against Labour. Fine Gael supported the guarantee of bank deposits, but while opposing that bailout of bondholders. Fine Gael supported the Croke Park deal with the trade union leaders, something Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Party couldn’t take a stand on until Jack O’Connor had given the word that it had SIPTU support.
As I have written before, Enda Kenny has been a very good leader in electoral terms. At the 2002 general, when the party fell to 31 seats, some commentators spoke of a continual demise in the party’s fortunes. Within two years of Kenny’s leadership, the party had bested Fianna Fáil for the first time, beating them at the European elections in 2004. He led the party to 51 seats in 2007 and then Fine Gael became the largest party at a local level in 2009. This is an incredible record for his eight years of leadership to date.
But even after all that, Enda Kenny might not be the best man to lead the party into the next election. We are facing a contest primarily between Fine Gael and Labour, and Labour have gained ground. Even if we can win some of this back, to find ourselves ahead of Labour again, the ratio in seats between the two parties after the next election will be crucial. In ways, by their commitment to many of the elements of social partnership through their trade union links, Labour is simply proposing more of the same. It is important for the country that Fine Gael has a very clear advantage over Labour.
It is unfortunate to say it, but despite his good work internally, in bringing many good candidates into the party and forward to electoral success, Enda Kenny is not popular nationally, and particularly in Dublin. He is not disliked, many simply do not see him as an alternative Taoiseach. We have to be realistic and wonder how much of the fortune the party has had in the polls was due to our own people and policies, and how much was because we were seen as the most likely alternative to Fianna Fáil.
This is not just about Friday’s Irish Times/MRBI poll, or the last Sunday Times/Red C poll, which showed the party stagnating in support. There have been internal mutterings about Kenny’s leadership for a while, reflecting large sections of the general public. These rose to prominence after the resignation of George Lee, but no one in the parliamentary party wanted to give him credit for deciding the fate of the party leader.
I do believe the party would be stronger nationally led by Richard Bruton, provided the parliamentary party gets behind him fully were he to succeed Enda Kenny. He does command confidence and respect, of a sort which the Irish people now desire. This should not be seen as a sign of internal division and rancour, as the party has successfully avoided since 2002, but rather as our best strategic decision when facing one of the most important elections for the country in recent decades. In all likelihood that before the next election, there will be a three-way leadership debate. Richard Bruton would be seen as a fresh face, and his command of economics would be reassuring in that event. The parliamentary party have to face this action head on, and not let it linger. Even if Enda Kenny were to come out of this continuing as leader, it would put the matter publicly behind the party.
One way or other, this needs to be resolved this week, resolved decisively and put to rest. And most importantly, we can’t let this lead to continuing divisions in the front bench into different camps after this week.
I had it in my mind from the middle of last week that my next entry would be on David Laws, but had thought to write little more than a few words on the praise he had been receiving from Tories. In Thursday’s FT, I read the comments of Edward Leigh, Conservative chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, who asked “Can I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending, Gladstonian liberalism?” and he he been described as an unreconstructed nineteenth century liberal. ConservativeHome reported on how Laws refused a potted plant in his office and cut the Treasury’s budget for potted plants. He also declined the use of the Treasury’s £100,000 limousine, which his predecessor Liam Byrne has used and which he was entitled to use, saying that with a London home, he wouldn’t need it.
Consider that much in assessing his character. He was not someone who went into politics for the money or the perks. He found himself tripped up by a form of words, not fully confident in himself that he could describe his relationship as that between cohabiting partners. They had been in a committed relationship since 2001, but did not outwardly live as a couple. When he first started to claim his rental allowance, it would seem fair that he would not have to detail his budding romance. At what point in the intervening nine years would they then have become partners as defined by the rules? My instinct would be some time before they moved house together, but considering how private they were, that even their family and many friends did not know, let alone his stated justification of separate bank accounts, I can understand how he felt they didn’t fit the description.
Yes, as a millionaire he did not need the money, but all MPs from outside London are as entitled to a housing allowance as their salary. And it should be said that had he acknowledged their relationship, he could have claimed even more from the exchequer through an allowance for mortgage repayments. He is not someone who set out to defraud the state.
That he was in the closet helps understand a lot of small things about his political career. He was offered a front bench position in the Conservatives by George Osborne, and could well have found himself as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but Laws likes to tell of how he told Osborne that “I am not a Tory”. A profile of Laws last week, before the controversy, gave Conservative support of Section 28 as his reason for not joining, a provision banning promotion of homosexuality and the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in schools, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 and supported by the Tories including David Cameron until its repeal in 2003. Of course, there are prominent openly gay Conservative MPs, such as Alan Duncan and Nick Herbert, both now junior ministers, but I’d imagine it was far more comfortable for him to be a closeted gay man in a liberal party than it would have been in a conservative party.
It also might have played a part in his ruling himself out of the 2007 leadership election, following the resignation of Sir Ming Campbell. After the leadership election of the previous year, in which the supposedly happily married Mark Oaten had withdrawn after controversy with a rent boy, and a second candidate Simon Hughes admitted that while he was not gay, he had had relationships with both men and women, Laws would have spurned such public scrutiny. I remember wondering during that contest in early 2006, whether I might find myself in some such situation later in life. Thankfully, I think I have now set aside that possibility.
The days following the election on 24 May 2007 were emotionally very disappointing for me, for both personal and political reasons. The party fell from eight seats to two, including the loss of the Michael McDowell’s seat. We held a General Council meeting not too long after, where we retrospectively endorsed the programme for government negotiated by Fianna Fáil and the Greens. Groups of the party met of the following months, wondering again and again what could be done. The next General Council meeting was in November, and there was very little difference in what was said then, and a general feeling of lethargy set in. I think the party could have been salvaged at that point, had a real effort been made to re-engage with the moment of 1985 and what that should mean in 2007, but it would certainly have been a difficult battle.
We elected a new leader in May 2008, Ciarán Cannon, and for many that was the first they had heard of him. In September, he announced that he could no longer see a future for the party. Given that no one of the leadership supported continuing then, I reluctantly supported the decision to disband. In ways I felt it would hinder the possibility of a re-emergence of a viable liberal party, whenever that could be possible, had we continued, so on 8 November 2008, I spoke at the last conference of the Progressive Democrats, on the side of the motion that passed.
On this evening’s Late Late Show, Ryan Tubridy challenged Enda Kenny on his leadership, given that the party is ahead in opinion polls of his own approval rating. He was right to assert that it is only the party figure that matters, and that it would be pointless were it the reverse. But he should probably have taken a moment to remind the viewers of what has happened under his leadership.
When he became leader in 2002, the party had just suffered its worst election since 1948. The party had just 31 TDs and some commentators wondered whether the party had a future. In 2007, the party won 51 seats, and now stands at 52, after the election of George Lee last June.
In 2004, Fine Gael came within 9 seats of Fianna Fáil in the local elections. Since the 2009 local elections, Fine Gael has outnumbered Fianna Fáil and Labour combined in city and county councils.
In 2004, and again in 2009, Fine Gael was the largest party of Ireland’s European seats.
Fine Gael looks set to become the largest party in the Dáil after the next election. This will be no small achievement, the first time the party will outpoll Fianna Fáil.
These are easy to grasp facts about his success as a leader. It explains his popularity within the party, and shows that he can deliver. I only wish he’d said something of that on air.