In recent weeks, Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael have experienced polling difficulties. This draws upon evidence taken from recent polls from the Sunday Times/B&A and Ipsos/MRBI.
In the last two months, Sunday Times/B&A polls that have been released, for June 2021, Fine Gael’s support decreased to 24%, compared to a rise in support for Sinn Féin with 34% and Fianna Fáil whose support stood at 20%.
Meanwhile, in the Sunday Times/B&A poll that was released in May 2021, Sinn Féin’s support was at 30%, compared to Fine Gael, whose support was at 28%, whereas Fianna Fáil was at 22%.
Polls undertaken by Ipsos/MRBI/The Irish Times in June 2021 show that ‘Sinn Féin is up three points to 31% on the last comparable poll in February. Fianna Fáil is on 20%, which is a rise of six points, while Fine Gael is down three points on 27%’.
This raises the question: is Leo Varadkar’s leadership of Fine Gael under threat and can we expect a leadership challenge to his leadership in the lifetime of this government, if Fine Gael’s fortunes in the polls do not improve?
Polls are normally taken with a degree of caution with the common margin of error associated with different polling companies but Ipsos/MRBI/The Irish Times polls, are normally seen as polls, which represent an accurate reflection of the state of play for the political parties in the current moment.
Politicians normally state that they do not pay attention to polls. But we can all take this with a degree of a pinch of salt because politicians will surely be satisfied if their party is looking strong in recent polls and whose support is rising, whereas politicians, whose parties are experiencing a decrease in support, will undoubtedly be worried.
This is certainly a moment of worry for Leo Varadkar for two reasons: the support for Fine Gael is decreasing and it has not been able to maintain the levels of support that it had at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It has not been a leadership without troubles for Leo Varadkar. Hailed as a progressive moment for Ireland, when he became the first gay Taoiseach of the country in June 2017, after defeating Simon Coveney in a leadership contest, he oversaw a government, which repealed the eighth amendment.
But he also oversaw a government that had rising homelessness figures as the housing crisis continued to worsen. Meanwhile, the same government stood over a crumbling health system as nurses went on strike for better pay and working conditions.
These failures came to a head, in the February 2020 election, when Leo Varadkar led Fine Gael to its worst election results since 2002, as it barely scraped 20% of first preference votes and Leo Varadkar, himself, lost out to Paul Donnelly in his constituency of Dublin West, and ended up taking the second seat in the constituency.
While Leo Varadkar remained leader of Fine Gael, some figures within the party wanted him to step down in the wake of these poor election results. According to Newstalk, ‘a former Fine Gael TD Paudie Coffey has called on Leo Varadkar to step aside as party leader’.
As the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ireland, as it did, across the world, government formation took a back seat whilst Leo Varadkar remained as caretaker Taoiseach until a new government was formed. Rallying around the government message of ‘staying at home, and staying safe’, managed to increase Fine Gael’s level of support in the polls.
In June 2020, in the Ipsos/MRBI/The Irish Times poll, Fine Gael’s support rose to 37%, which was a 17% increase on its support levels, while Sinn Féin remained on 25% and Fianna Fáil dropped to 14%, which was a 9% decrease on their first preference vote total in the February 2020 election.
It is worth noting that this was the first poll that was undertaken by Ipsos/MRBI/The Irish Times, since the February 2020 election at the time. Moving forward to October 2020, Fine Gael’s support dropped to 35%, but remained strong, while Sinn Féin’s support increased to 29% and Fianna Fáil’s support increased to 17%.
October was the month in which it emerged that Leo Varadkar would be placed under criminal investigation for potentially leaking a highly sensitive document to his friend, on contractual arrangements with the IMO. In February 2021, Fine Gael’s support dropped to 30%, whereas Sinn Féin’s support slightly dropped to 28% and Fianna Fáil’s support dropped to 14%.
However, the latest poll will worry Fine Gael as they fell behind Sinn Féin, as its support decreased to 27%, while Sinn Féin has had a 3% swing in support and Fianna Fáil’s support increased to 20%.
Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar do not seem to be benefitting from the vaccine rollout as it appears that Fianna Fáil, under Health Minister, Stephen Donnelly are benefitting from a vaccine boost as its support has increased by 6%, compared to the February 2021 poll.
The last time that Fine Gael had a leadership challenge to its existing leader was Richard Bruton who challenged Enda Kenny for the position of Fine Gael leader in 2010, as senior figures within Fine Gael did not believe that Kenny had the credentials and personality to become Taoiseach in the event, that an election was to be held.
At that time, Kenny survived the leadership upheaval and came out stronger. Six months or so later, Fine Gael had its best election, as it won 76 seats and Fine Gael led the government coalition with Labour in the 31st Dáil with Kenny as Taoiseach.
Will Leo Varadkar survive a leadership upheaval if his leadership is challenged? For now, it seems likely that Varadkar will survive a leadership upheaval as he enjoys overwhelming support in the party but the likes of Simon Harris, Paschal Donoghue and Simon Coveney will be looking to challenge his leadership if the polling prospects for Fine Gael do not improve in the coming months.