This is what happens when the cliched ‘protest vote’ turns positive. The Government did not get a good kicking in the local elections but neither did the Opposition win the day.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail were engaged in an almighty game of spin last night as both parties tried to claim victory.
However, the RTE exit poll, tallies and early results suggest that Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin are destined to be stuck in purgatory (confidence and supply) for some time to come.
Senior figures in the two largest parties were last night predicting they would make gains – but ultimately admitted that the changes from 2014 will be inconsequential.
Interestingly, Fine Gael is talking up its gains in rural Ireland while Fianna Fail is pointing to the inroads it is making in Dublin.
It’s always possible to find an upside if you look hard enough.
But when Varadkar and Martin sit down in the coming days with their key strategists to carry out the post-mortem, they will be focused on problems rather than the positives.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned ahead of a general election which admittedly is now much further away than it was last Friday morning.
Firstly, they will take solace in the fact there was no noticeable ‘protest vote’ in this election. A switch towards green politics suggests a positive electorate.
Voters didn’t feel reliant on the ‘establishment’ parties – but neither did they turn to the likes of Sinn Fein or the more extreme left-wing parties.
Instead, they gave the very middle-class Green Party a chance at a time when “save the planet” is a becoming a mainstream slogan.
Green leader Eamon Ryan conceded part of the party’s surge was down to David Attenborough’s documentaries.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are now set to try to out-green each other in a race to position themselves as eco-friendly ahead of the next election.
For Leo Varadkar, the situation must be somewhat confusing. One of the very few memorial moments from the campaign was the Taoiseach being verbally attacked by farmers for being a vegan.
He’s not, but that didn’t seem to stop the idea seeping into the national psyche.
In reality, Varadkar had simply claimed to have reduced his intake of red meat as part of an effort to lower his carbon footprint, something Green voters should approve of.
Varadkar did make a conscious effort to try to piggyback on the ‘green wave’ in the final weeks of the campaign.
The Government leaked chunks of its as-yet-unpublished Climate Action Plan in a bid to show it is taking the issue seriously.
Journalists were also advised that the Taoiseach would be making a significant speech at an event in Dublin on May 16.
Editors and correspondents from all the main outlets showed up to hear Varadkar tell us: “Climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity today.”
He added: “We need to make changes now, before it is too late. They will not be easy. They will require us to change how we heat our homes, how we travel, whether we travel, and how our electricity is produced. Every individual, family, community and business will have to change.”
Yet there was no solid policy announcement and perhaps as a result many individuals and families changed their vote.
Fianna Fail was less conscious that the environment was going to be so crucial on polling day.
The party had to rewrite part of its European manifesto after Ireland South candidate Malcolm Byrne refused to sign up.
The Wexford councillor wrote to party chiefs saying the first draft did not give sufficient priority to tackling climate change.
But the energy around the Green Party should not be overstated. While the shift is substantial, it remains to be seen whether it is sustainable.
One minister admitted to the Sunday Independent that he transferred to the Green Party as a safe option.
The same minister argued that many ordinary voters who went Green drove to the polling station in their 4x4s.
So Varadkar and Martin must look further if they are to figure out a way of retaking the narrative.
A number of senior Fine Gael sources were last night conflicted about the result.
One noted: “We changed leader to win elections. That’s not said with vengeance, but the idea was Leo Varadkar was going to romp home.”
That point wasn’t lost on Martin who provocatively pointed out that the Exit Poll puts Fine Gael at a lower level than was achieved by Enda Kenny in 2014.
Expect to hear other Fianna Fail representatives repeat that line a lot.
But Fine Gael sources were quick enough to argue that Martin hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory either.
One senior figure pointed to recent comments from ex-British prime minister Tony Blair who suggested any opposition party should be able to win local elections.
“Jeremy Corbyn can’t win the local elections in Britain and Micheal Martin can’t win in Ireland,” the Fine Gael source said.
This was Martin’s fourth election as leader. He has helped bring Fianna Fail back from the black hole they fell into along with the country’s finances in 2011.
But he has still not etched out a clear road to power. The Cork TD will have one more chance whenever the next general election takes place, probably within 12 months.
His parliamentary party would expect him to stand aside after that election if he isn’t Taoiseach.
Five years ago Fianna Fail got 267 local authority seats. Twenty-eight of those councillors went on to become TDs and senators in 2016.
Party strategists were last night predicting new councillors in Finglas, Dublin’s inner city and Dundrum. If that comes to pass it will give Martin a much improved base in the capital where the party is weak.
But overall the picture suggests they are in a holding pattern.
Their local election manifesto could easily be viewed as a first draft of what they will offer voters at the general election.
Substantial sections related to policies that are the responsibility of a government rather than county councils.
For example, they promised to increase garda numbers to 16,000, protect the post office network and launch a national cycle way strategy.
The key area of emphasis in the document, though, is housing.
Fianna Fail says it will double home building to 40,000 units a year, reform tax and planning system for REITs and launch a tenant purchase scheme.
Clearly, Martin believes housing is where the next election will be fought.
And despite the general greening of politics that will now take place, Fine Gael sources are of a similar mind.
TDs who have spent the past six weeks on the doorsteps say housing was the singular issues that united every generation.
It is no longer just an issue for young people hoping to get on the property ladder.
“The reason to vote Fine Gael used to be to fix the economy. Now it’s fixed so they take that as standard and want a bit extra,” a minister said.
“The view is that we just don’t get it on housing.”
That is the biggest message brought back to Government Buildings once the final votes have been counted.
Varadkar and Martin will now have some time to prepare for that general election.
Expect to see them ramp up political attacks over the summer and the negotiation of a Budget in October will go down to the wire – but as a result of these elections neither man will be rushing to force the public back to the polls.
At various times over the past two years, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have flirted with collapsing the government but always pulled back.
On the other hand, Sinn Fein has consistently sought to try cause an election by placing motions of no confidence in ministers.
This strategy of constant combat has not been rewarded so it may be time for Mary Lou McDonald to tone it down.
Today it is clear the two main parties are not the powerhouses that they once were – but Varadkar and Martin are lucky the opposition is fragmented.
Rather than a two-and-a-half party system, we now have a political landscape made up of two ‘big parties’ and three smaller ones: Sinn Fein, Labour and the Greens.
The potential for new coalitions is growing. An early test will be a series of by-elections on foot of TD departures for Brussels. They have to be held by November.
It’s not exactly back to the drawing board for the two men battling to be Taoiseach but whoever learns the lessons of this outing will be in poll position.
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