Thursday, 15 October 2015

Don't believe the hype: The early general election that wasn't.

Alex Turner with some words of wisdom for Enda.

This time last week the country was abuzz with rumours that a November election was on the horizon. The political parties began oiling their canvassing machines, the media worked themselves into a hot bother over who this early election would favour and the bookies slashed their odds to as short as 1/8. All the while Enda, the man with the power, toyed with the frenzied mobs with the grace of a 16 year old trying it on with Scarlett Joahansson. Before last week,everything was calm. Enda remained true to form and on point regarding any potential early election; it wasn't happening, nuh-uh, no way

But then, something changed. 

The hype took over. Enda probably had armies of Fine Gael advisors, councillors and TDs whispering salaciously in his ear. "Go to the country early, Enda. The budget, the economy, the tax-take, the rugby, Shane Long's goal against Germany. It's all there. Do it." Enda, as is his custom, dithered. On Monday of that fateful week he was on home turf in Mayo when he was accosted by RTE reporters inquiring about the date of the election. Enda could neither confirm nor deny it. Enda was equally ambivalent in the Dáil a day later. 

Predictably, all hell broke loose. This was almost as good as a confirmation. When the Taoiseach had been so adamant previously there would not be an early election, why would he choose to hesitate just as the gossip was reaching fever pitch? It had to be coming. Somebody in the Fine Gael camp, probably Michael Noonan, was finally after twisting his elbow.

It was anarchy and, at that, the most stupid and banal of anarchies. The Irish media fetishised the date of the election to the extent that the date actually became more important than the election itself. Constant to-ing and fro-ing over how November might suit the government because of the "good feeling" engendered by a presumed giveaway budget or whether February or March might be better because people would start "to feel it in their pockets" by then and, oh, it might be less cold too. 

Nobody knew if any of this held water. There was no historical precedents to back up these assumptions, no statistics presented, no evidence that holding the election on one of these dates would swing the election either way. It was a pantomine of conjecture and bullshit. 

So, what happened? Two things killed this early election; Labour and, more importantly, the hype. On the face of it Labour's role in stopping this election seems pivotal but, in my opinion, the hype is what ultimately put it to bed.

Labour, naturally enough, were aghast at the prospect of an early election as their poll numbers right now are about as healthy as a somebody with stage 3 lung cancer. They can't even break into their historical home of 10%-12%. If an election was called next month, Labour would be very lucky to reach double figures in seats. So they want to wait. Joan Burton had a "long conversation" with Enda (read- She got down on her hands and knees and begged him) and he seemingly listened. Will they fare much better in February or March? Who knows. They certainly can't be sure that any goodwill generated from the budget will spill over to their numbers but it's worth kicking the can down the road just to see. The thing is, Fine Gael would like to have Labour back as coalition partners again. Well, not that they'd particularly love that but it is the least worst option for them. So it's sort of in Fine Gael's interests to see Labour do at least respectfully.

But concern for Labour's potential struggle alone would not have stopped an early election plot. The hype killed it. It reached overload. It became too much. There had been rumblings about an early Autumn election in the papers as early as May but that talk was largely confined to close political circles and the kind of boring, lonely people who lurk on internet comment boards (i.e. me). By last week, every eejit and their dog were talking about it. It was all the newspapers could talk about. It was all the news programmes could talk about. People, to be expected, became sick of it.

Enda's dithering in this regard did him no favours. But here's the catch; for me, by time Enda had reached the beginning of last week with the hype just starting to peak he was fighting a losing battle. He didn't want to carry on denying there would be an election in November (which is what by that stage he presumably preferred) because if he did and he subsequently did call one he would look like an indecisive muppet and the opposition would use it as a stick to batter him with. But, at the same time, he didn't want to confirm it as he was presumably waiting to see how the budget went down before announcing anything. So he was forced into making a series of vague, non-committal statements last week which fed the hype. 

The thing is, if Enda and Fine Gael had been a bit more circumspect, a bit more measured they could have had the Autumn election they so desired. It's clear that in the weeks leading up to the budget, senior Fine Gael figures were hinting to numerous journalists that an election was on the horizon. They were leaking things left, right and centre. The hype became too much and eventually devoured itself. The whole point in a snap election is it's supposed to catch your opponents (and the electorate) off-guard. In the end, Fine Gael were about as composed as an American high-school shooter, spraying bullets of gossip indiscriminately until it all finally caught up with them. 

And so, on Sunday last, Enda Kenny appeared on The Week in Politics on RTE1 and proclaimed to all and sundry that he had not changed his mind, that the election will be in "Spring 2016" and that was always his intention. Ah Enda, innocent, innocent Enda. He's like the lad in a nightclub who's scuppered his chances with the pretty girl by drunkenly spilling four jagerbombs on her dress telling himself "I didn't fancy her anyway". Ah well. In years to come, Taoisigh who find themselves in a similar situation to Enda's last week will look back on it as a guide for How-Not-To-Call-A-Snap-Election.

For now, all the journalists and politicos can do is start taking bets on which month in Spring the election will be; "February? It's too cold but voters might want to share the love with the coalition parties on Valentine's Day. March? The weather is better but the Shinners would ride on the crest of a Republican wave..... Can we just not have it, Enda?"

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