Debate Did Nothing To Shift Momentum, Advantage Micheál

Last night’s leaders’ debate on Virgin Media One didn’t produce many fireworks and it probably won’t change how too many people are voting. But there was a noticeable shift in approach from Leo Varadkar.

Fine Gael
It seems to be part of an effort by Fine Gael to belatedly change the narrative that has developed around the party in government.

Fairly or unfairly, Fine Gael is perceived in some quarters as out-of-touch, uncaring, representing better-off voters with Varadkar seen as somewhat aloof and even a little arrogant. The Taoiseach set out to nail that perception.

Progress had been made, but not enough, he said. Leo wants to “do more”. And he does care deeply but he showed that with “actions” rather than “words”. He expressed deep regret and sorrow that people had been forced to lie on trolleys in emergency departments.

The Taoiseach was humility personified, which he hasn’t always been in previous exchanges with Martin.

And that didn’t happen by accident or occur to him on the spur of the moment. This was a carefully executed plan to show a leader who not only listened, but was in tune with voters’ needs and concerns. A kinder, gentler Fine Gael.

Vulnerable Varadkar?
Varadkar even tried to turn a weakness into a strength with his admission that he wasn’t as good with words with his rival. It (very deliberately) showed a vulnerability that voters inevitably find appealing – most people struggle to find the words to express how they really feel at times. And it more than hinted that his rival was more about style than substance.

None of this is to suggest that Varadkar was a clear winner of the debate. The best he can hope for is that some undecided voters may think he shaded it. There will equally be many who felt Martin had the better of things.

Martin On The Ball
The Fianna Fáil leader won the exchanges on health. He raised the delays in seeing a GP, claimed abolishing the board of the HSE was a PR stunt and accused the government of failing to take pre-emptive action ahead of the inevitable Winter trolley crisis. “Have you no shame at all?” Martin asked at one point.

The Taoiseach also resembled a rabbit in the headlights during the question on past drug use – it might not be the last we hear on that one.

Micheál Martin perhaps wasn’t as fluid and fluent as he normally is – as the clear front runner was he a little too focused on not making a mistake?

And there is an argument that Varadkar can take more positives out of the debate.

But Martin certainly didn’t drop the ball and, given his party’s current ascendency, that was probably all that was required. He also arguably did more than enough to remind voters about the government’s failures in health and housing.

It’s far too early to tell whether Varadkar’s ‘mea culpa’ (with the kicker that of course Fianna Fáil is ‘máxima culpa for causing the mess in the first place) will resonate with voters.

Is it too late for an electorate that, based on this week’s Irish Times’ poll, believes the country is on the wrong track and wants a change of government? And might his hands-up approach also have come across as weakness? Did he overdo the ‘we didn’t do enough’ line? We won’t know that until well into next week and a series of new polls.

But for now there’s no reason to believe that anything has changed. Fianna Fáil has the momentum and there wasn’t near enough in last night’s debate to shift that momentum in Fine Gael’s favour.

Odds Speak For Themselves
And that’s very much reflected in BoyleSports’ odds this morning. Martin is 1/5 to be the next Taoiseach – extraordinary narrow odds in a two horse race – with Varadkar out to 3/1.

My own estimation is that if there was an election tomorrow (which of course there isn’t – there’s a lot of ground hurling still to be played), Fianna Fail would be in the mid 50s seat wise with Fine Gael around ten seats back. And that’s very much reflected in BoyleSports’ odds. FF is 4/5 to be under 54.5 seats and marginally shorter odds of 10/11 to be over that level.

Fine Gael meanwhile is 4/5 to be under 44.5 seats and 10/11 to be over that.

Traditionally the hardest thing to predict in an election that is anyway tight is the make-up of the next government. Who this time four years ago would have predicted an FG-Independents minority government with outside support from FF?

Who would have guessed that rank outsider for a seat Katherine Zappone would end up as a cabinet minister? Nobody. I certainly didn’t.

The BoyleSports’ odds reflect that difficulty. An FF/Green/Labour/Social Democrats is joint favourite with FF/Greens at 4-1. My own feeling is that FF/Green/Labour and Independents (10-1) might be a more likely option.

But it’s a brave punter that picks the exact formation of the next government.

But, as of now, it’s still definitely advantage Micheál.