In yesterday's Examiner Noel Whelan compares the position of Fine Gael in 1980 under Garret Fitzgerald. The party by that stage had reorganised itself after the severe defeat at the polls in 1977 and had been doing well. When Charles Haughey became leader of Fianna Fáil the party suffered a setback. But according to Whelan "the turnaround came when FitzGerald realised Fine Gael needed to develop a distinctive and credible economic policy. Before the 1981 election, he spent a lot of time with economists, writing a new and imaginative economic policy for his party. Launching it just weeks before the election gave Fine Gael the initiative in setting the general policy agenda in the 1981 campaign". Whelan wonders whether Enda Kenny could have a similar trick up his sleeve.
If that what he's depending on it seem like a ridiculous gamble. If there are any good ideas developing among the party's policy wonks it would be a good idea to get them out as quickly as possible. Of course there is always the fear that FF would steal the policies for their own re-election campaign. But surely policies could be designed that cut against the grain of the government's record since 1997. There is only so much mileage to be gained from attacking the government's failures. The electorate is only too aware of the lack of fit between a prosperous economy and social provision. Fine Gael have a largely anonymous front bench and a steady stream of carefully targeted policy initiatives would help some of them to raise their profile.
Last minute initiatives launched in the heat of an election campaign are inherently risky. At the last election Fine Gael had a huge credibility problem with some of their policies that looked like opportunistic gimmickry. The polls show that the the electorate trust the government's stewardship of the economy more than they would trust the opposition's. The government would be likely to make that the centre piece of its campaign. The challenge for the opposition is to show how popular initiatives in social policy are not only desirable in themselves but also economically necessary.