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Bertie Ahern’s governments were famous for an approach to politics and public administration that could best be described as leadership by weather-vane. But in everyday political terms, it suited the time and suited the people, or many of them at any rate. For the medium and long term, however, it was always a lousy approach. The problem now is that the global economic and financial hurricane is causing the weather-vane to spin wildly and unpredictably, and the people have now lost patience with a government that shows no sign of being able or willing to point it consistently in one direction. Budget 2009 provided the opportunity to change the wind and point the weather-vane in a new direction towards a stronger economy and a fairer society.

Brian Cowen has been unlucky to some extent, but he and the majority of his ministers have also been the authors of their own misfortune. Decisions to remove and then restore the automatic entitlement to a medical card for people over 70 and the special allowance for disabled teenagers, and to introduce and then row back from an income levy on those just scraping the minimum wage, were supremely ill-judged, entirely mis-directed and showed little sense of fairness or political direction.

A half-baked budget

The voters were ready for a tough time. The rhetoric in the lead-up had left nobody in any doubt that difficult decisions lay ahead. What voters didn’t expect, though, was a half-baked budget which forced vulnerable workers in shaky private sector jobs, and some groups on welfare provision, to swallow a bolus of bad medicine, while large swathes of the public sector carried on regardless, stuck fast in honeyed positions.

For the second time in as many weeks, we’ve had confirmation that the principal party of government is in freefall and the main opposition grouping is going up in the balloon. Support for Fianna Fáil has slumped from 42% to 27% while Fine Gael has sky-rocketed from 23% to 34%. There has been a stampede from the one to the other.

Fianna Fáil are in serious danger and Fine Gael can hardly believe their luck. But while the former will be hoping they can hold it together to avoid the early (blood) bath which voters appear eager to draw, the latter must be praying that the economic climate will have improved before the electorate asks them to take the tiller.

Support has collapsed

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that support for Fianna Fáil among the professional classes has collapsed, from 56% in June to just 19% in November. I suspect much of this is related to the spectacular implosion of the building industry, which a great many people like architects, surveyors and solicitors, became dependent on during the boom, rather than to a disappointment among high earners that

Fianna Fail would be better at taking tough decisions than a Fine Gael-Labour alternative. Confidence in the government is now shattered, perhaps beyond repair. Less than one in five voters – and more than half of Fianna Fail supporters – believe the government is doing a good job. Satisfaction with Brian Cowen is down a staggering 21 points. Enda Kenny’s rating lags his party’s, although Eamon Gilmore’s does lead his.

There is a crisis in and of leadership. And it’s not just a crisis for Fianna Fail and Brian Cowen. The incoherence of Fianna Fáil’s political and economic strategy is matched only by the vacuity at the heart of the narrative of their rivals. Voters are seeking a genuine, dynamic, transformative leadership of the kind that propelled a ‘skinny kid with a funny name’ into the White House; and which also got this country off its knees a half a century ago. Instead we are stuck with a ramshackle political class that can barely energise a lightbulb, much less mobilise the public sector to respond like it can, and which spends more time trying to please and placate the centre ground than tackling big issues.

Lack of direction

What’s annoying voters right now is not just the lack of direction from their political leaders, a feeling of confidence that they are in control of rather than being shaped by events, but their blind faith in a fly-by-wire approach to governing on issues like the banking crisis, the economic recession, and the management of our public services and public sector.

We may or may not have an election in the New Year, which may or may not being about a change of government. Whether events bring a genuine change of leadership is another question entirely. Leadership is about taking the people further and faster than they think they can go, while persuading them to believe the sacrifice is worth it. I suspect the only potentially transformative leader on the political horizon at this time is the government’s nemesis on the Lisbon Treaty. The speculation so far is that Libertas would only fight the European elections. I think we should expect it soon to register as a political party and to be a force also at the next local elections and general election.