Modern politics is like high street garments. They are designed for obsolescence. Like a Kate Moss cutaway dress or a practical blue Anorak, you’ll get a couple of good years out of them if your are lucky and then they are chucked.
But ten years? Or fifteen years? That’s an eternity.
The evidence is self-evident. In Europe over the past few years, we have seen a rake of two-term and three-term leaders getting the flick from the electorate or their colleagues.
José María Aznar retired after nine years in Spain. Silvio Berlusconi got the guts of a decade in Italy before getting the heave-ho. Gerhard Schroeder had eight years in Germany before . The messianic Jacques Chirac got the heave-ho (even though he managed to last 12). And even Bertie Ahern’s closest foreign ally, Tony Blair – the man whose career has mirrored his own in lots of ways – was given no more than a decade before he got the order of the boot.
A year or more ago, when Ahern began to creep into the record books for running second only to de Valera in terms of longevity, there was an assumption that, like Mr Tony, he would get his third term and his shot at 15 years. Like Mr Tony, election number three wasn’t going to come as easily as election number two but he was still going to limp home. It was a very neat assumption and had a nice symmetry to it. Problem was that it was wrong.
I went out earlier this week to see the various parties canvass. And what struck me was that it was like 2002 all over again except that all the hype and goodwill was now following Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte and not Ahern. We all know that Kenny can shake more hands in an instant than a packed church offering the sign of peace. But the reaction to Rabbitte was more interesting. He is diffident and a bit wooden on the stump with none of the ‘howya horse’ gregariousness of Kenny. But people were actually seeking him out, shaking his hand, wanting to talk to him. And during the course of the day, I heard a phrase that will fall on Fianna Fail ears like poison:
“Maybe it’s time for a change”.
And that’s what may fell this Government in the end. Not the health services. Not BertieGate. Not the record on crime. Or eduation. Or health. Or decentralisation. Or e-voting. But for a far more visceral reasons - because they have been there too long and there’s a need for change.
The Anorak has been there for a long time and has given some service. But it’s beginning to let in the rain. And would it be much better to plump for brightly-coloured Mr Goretex - newer, more modern, and much more lightweight.
With the exception of Richard Bruton and one or two others, the Fine Gael front bench isn’t exactly rippling with top talent. Its promises, for all its hard sell, doesn’t amount to that much. Enda’s contract with the people is just a political promise dressed up in another way. Sure he’ll not seek the office of Taoiseach again if he doesn’t fulfil it. But who’ll be the judge of that? Himself, ultimately. I’m sure there will be many mitigation factors to be found if those 2,300 beds are not built or the 2,000 cops (or is it only 1,000) aren’t pounding the beat. That’s what politicians do. They make promises. They break them. They explain them away by talking about new priorities and review.
I must say that I have huge problems with FG’s policies on crime which are Pavlovian, knee-jerk, cynical, hysterical, scaremongering and populist. (And neither FF, the PDs or Labour do much better sadly). Boot camps. Drunk tanks. Electronic tagging. Tougher remission laws. Sounds real tough. All I can say is thank goodness for our constitution. And thank goodness some of the more lunatic ones will never see the light of day.
Having said that, Fine Gael’s revival has been stunning. From a hair’s breadth away from extinction in 2002, it is now but a hair’s breadth away from government. And their recovery has borrowed heavily from the triangulation techniques perfected by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair (where else have they featured this week). So, well have they positioned themselves that the choice offered to the electorate is a simple one between the Bertie Ahern of Fianna Fail and the Bertie Ahern of Fine Gael.
The policy choices, the implementation, won’t change that much despite all the promises. Because many of the difficulties in health, crime, education, infrastructure and all the other things in the mix are long-term, complicated, multi-faceted and subject to drawn-out procedures. But they promise they can do it differently. That’s the rub.
Consider this stale but relevant cliché. Governments lose elections, Oppositions don't win them. The Fianna Fail campaign has been shockingly fragmented, incoherent and all at sea. Last Monday, Brian Cowen came out fighting with a full-frontal attack on the Mullingar Accord’s spending plans. But they couldn’t sustain it, even for 24 hours. It would take a further two days for the party to seize the initiative and that was with the showdown between the two leaders on PrimeTime. Ahern looked tired but for the first time we saw a hunger and desire there after two and half weeks of being on the back foot and being out of sorts.
But victories in TV debates are not decisive and determinate. Fianna Fail and the PDs had already leaked gallons of support to the alternative. On second viewing, my own view that Ahern was the clear winner of the TV debate was reinforced. But by surviving almost unscathed Kenny also won big. He can now say that he wasn’t the corporal who by some outrageous stroke of fortune became a lucky General.
It’s going to be very tight, knife-edge close. The key electorate, the floating voters, are wavering about if 10 years is long enough, or whether there’s another couple of years wear left in the anorak.