Will new Taoiseach Simon Harris TD call an election in this autumn?

Will Simon Harris go to the polls in Autumn?

Go back one month and no one would have thought we’d be on the verge of welcoming a new Taoiseach. Yet here we are.

Practically from the moment the non leadership contest began, incoming Taoiseach Simon Harris TD was quick to affirm that the government would run its full course, a sentiment echoed by the other leaders of the coalition. Commentators have almost universally interpreted this as proof that the next General Election can be safely scheduled for spring 2025.

Universal political consensus is a dangerous thing. It also isn’t necessarily worth the weight it is given. There remains a good chance the new Taoiseach may consider going to the people much sooner than anticipated.

Having just moved into the Department of An Taoiseach, it may be fair to say that the timing of the next election won’t be the first thing on Simon Harris’s to do list. He has some latitude over the next week or two to set out his stall for his new government and how that will differ from what came under his predecessor.

However, that may not be easy to accomplish. Fine Gael has been in government for 13 years. It’s hard to present the same faces as a new dawn, especially when the new Taoiseach can only shuffle the limited number of Ministerial portfolios actually controlled by his party.

He is also immediately thrust into campaigning, with the local and European elections now just around the corner. Fine Gael fared quite well the last time around and current national polling figures suggest it will be challenging for them to have as successful an outcome this June.

Once the local and European elections are out of the way, minds will quickly turn to the General Election.  At that point, it may seem that waiting until 2025 before seeking re-election as Taoiseach may not be in his party’s, or his own, best political interests.

As a strong communicator with well-honed journalistic expertise Harris is aware that his commitment that this government “will run its full term” is a neat turn of phrase that has the benefit of being a tautology, a true statement because of its logical form.  The beauty of being Taoiseach is that defining the “full term” of this government is his prerogative.  The full term of any government is deemed complete when the Taoiseach of the day goes to Aras an Uachtarain, tells the president that his government’s work is done and asks him to dissolve the Dáil.

As this is potentially the start of a new era in Fine Gael, minds will quickly turn to thinking beyond the short term.  Fine Gael will feel they need to capitalise on the injection of energy the new Taoiseach can give to the party. But if a week is a long time in politics, 12 months is enough to see even the most golden of veneers tarnish. By 2025, Simon Harris will struggle to portray himself as a fresh new alternative.

Striking sooner and calling an election in say, the autumn, allows Fine Gael to capitalise on their new leader before the sheen wears off.

The 12 months maximum left for this government is not enough time to achieve any radical changes. There’s not much a new Taoiseach or Minister can achieve in a year, other than carry out the current Programme for Government. Any new Ministers will not have time to make an impression with the wider public.

However, a newly minted senior Minister ought to command an immediate electoral boost in their own constituencies. They will be able point to their new seniority and hold out the prospect of delivering locally in the event of being returned to government.  A quick election would also deprive those demoted, or disappointed at being overlooked, of the time to seethe and plot revenge.  A quick election will focus TDs attention on the business of holding their own seats in the hope that they can curry favour and maybe return to high office in future.

There has been a recurring sentiment amongst the political commentariat that this Government may call a General Election after the next Budget. The thinking being that a ‘giveaway’ Budget, at a time when the economy should still be in a good place, may represent the most favourable case this Government can potentially present.

It is not guaranteed the economy will remain that way, given some of the wider global economic indicators.

A newly refreshed Fine Gael may also be better placed to contest an election that the other large parties. While Sinn FĂ©in are certainly ahead in the polls, their numbers have been diminishing. They will also have to develop an electoral strategy that takes into account strong performances from the local elections but which doesn’t spread their vote too thin and unbalances their tickets.

Fianna Fáil also clearly aren’t yet ready for an election.  Their opinion poll numbers have been consistently disappointing and enough to dissuade them from pursuing an ambitious strategy to grow their Dáil numbers in the next election.  A sudden election, campaigning against a revitalised and energetic Fine Gael leader would not suit them. It will also reopen questions about Micheál Martin’s own leadership. Taking advantage of their opponents difficulties may give Fine Gael an opportunity to capitalise in constituencies where the two traditional parties are likely to be vying with each other for the final seats.

Leaders should always play to their strengths.  Simon Harris is a strong communicator, he has demonstrated a knack for sound-bites and an portraying an empathetic air. He appears to enjoy campaigning and engaging with the public.  His electoral record is strong. Some say he is a better campaigner than Minister. An election campaign relatively early in his leadership will enable him to focus on his strengths. His youth and vitality contrasted against the other political party leaders will be a huge asset for Fine Gael.

Since his early teens Simon Harris has been obsessed with politics. Unlike Leo Varadkar, he has expressed no other professional ambitions and will undoubtedly want his leadership to have longevity. When considering his strategic approach, he will look at the consequences of losing the next election. Losing power but maximising seat numbers wouldn’t be the worst result in the world for a new leader.  Fine Gael are due a stint in opposition after 13 years in office.  A leader who loses an election shortly after taking up the role can blame his predecessor and will likely be given an opportunity to make amends, reorganise his party and establish a new electoral platform.  Harris with his energy and work ethic would be well suited to this task.

If he waits and takes his 12 months as Taoiseach there is a real danger that a leader who loses his lustre may not be given the same latitude by his party. Filling Leos’s shoes for the next 12 months and completing Leo’s government’s work could make it more likely that following an election loss Fine Gael would seek a new leader. This would be Harris’s worst possible outcome.

In politics, the price of power usually comes down to popularity to a certain degree. And new brooms don’t maintain their appeal for long.

Politics in Ireland is about to get very interesting and capitalising on the bounce that his leadership and energy may bring could make an autumn General Election a real option for Fine Gael’s newest leader. 

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