This is my first blog post in over two months. That gap roughly coincides with the Covid 19 crisis escalating across Europe and the rest of the world and directly impacting the vast majority of our lives.
Up until then, 2020 had already been an interesting year politically for me with a shock (almost) victory for Sinn Fein in the Irish General Election, Joe Biden clinching the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nomination and Kier Starmer becoming the leader of the UK Labour Party.
While all three of these results could have long term consequences, they were all overshadowed by the media and political black hole that is the most deadly pandemic in decades. As I write this, the global number of infected stands at over 4.5 million people with 300 thousand fatalities. I genuinely have no idea if that number double, triple or quadruple by the end of the year though the exponential growth does seem to have (at least) temporarily tapered off in most European countries at present.
What I want to write about today though is some probable political consequences and impacts of this pandemic over the next one to five years. I am going to write about this in relation to areas of interest for me, as I have mainly written about politics in certain countries since I started A Bit Left and A Bit Lost. However, I really want to emphasise though that I am trying to think about this as objectively as possible. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people subconsciously see this pandemic as an opportunity to further their causes or, at the very least, have optimistically decided that the majority will suddenly come into line with their views given the shared experience we have all endured. I hope to write about some lifestyle trends that may change in a later article.
A Massive Break for Fine Gael
There will be people who call this distasteful but there will be "winners" from any crises. It's clear my political views do not align with Fine Gael but that is not why I am writing this. Fine Gael had a horrific election on February 8th, coming third in the number of seats behind both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein with 35, 38 and 37 respectively. Leo Varadkar was only elected on the fifth count and a number of high profile TDs like Regina Doherty lost her seat. The election did not produce a clear winner though and as negotiations were slow to begin, the Covid 19 pandemic rapidly came to the fore. Varadkar and Simon Harris, the outgoing Health Minister, maintained their positions as in Irish law they do so until a new Taoiseach and government are elected in the Dail. This allowed Fine Gael to "own" the early addresses to the nation which took place when the electorate was following every detail, had not endured the worst of the daily deaths and lockdown fatigue had not yet kicked in. Negotiations are still ongoing thought does noes appear that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will go into coalition together on a rotating Taoiseach basis, propped up by some of the smaller parties. On February 12th, Varadkar stated "I think the likelihood is that at the end of this process that I’ll be the leader of the opposition...", it is now possible that Varadkar takes the first round of the rotation and is returned as Taoiseach despite his party finishing third. This is no small way would be a result of his performance during the pandemic.
A Setback for a United Ireland in the Short Term
The United Kingdom has suffered terribly in the pandemic with one of the highest total number of fatalities of any country in the world. The Tory Government has endured an awful lot of criticism ranging from accusations of arrogance and "ignoring the science" to incompetence and a haphazard approach to testing. There are many in the North of Ireland, and in the South, who still view Irish Unity through the prism of "England's difficulty is Ireland's gain". I do think the pandemic has exacerbated the differences between England and the other three nations of the United Kingdom. I also think that the budgetary constraints that the almost certain Covid 19 recession will bring will be at the forefront of the average Irish voter's mind for the foreseeable future, particularly as it does appear that Sinn Fein will be locked out of government. I have always felt that 2025 is a decent target for a Border Poll though I know many campaigners of Irish Unity would prefer it sooner. With the current ambiguity of what triggers a Border Poll in the Good Friday Agreement, I think both the Irish and British governments will be able to bat away calls for a Unity vote as "distracting" and "frivolous" over the next three years (my short term definition here). This will be less feasible when the global economy starts to pick up again and further details have emerged about different countries' performance during the pandemic.
The Democrats are Now Clear Favourites in November
Once it became clear after March 3rd (Super Tuesday) that Joe Biden was the likely Democratic candidate, I felt that November was a toss up. Biden has the potential to carry a broad coalition of Democratic voters, especially as Bernie Sanders endorsed him almost immediately. On the other hand, Trump should not be underestimated and at that time, America was still enjoying a very buoyant economy with incredibly strong jobs. The pandemic has changed all of that. It has directly led to thirty-three million job losses in seven weeks and has obliterated Trump's bulwark of a "record-breaking economy". I now think the dial has firmly moved to the Democrats. Biden remains a candidate with clear weaknesses; he is gaffe-prone and the cloud of sexual assault allegations looms over him. I think he can actually learn a little from the British Conservatives campaign in 2019, he doesn't need to always be front and centre where he is most exposed. He needs to get more accomplished and popular speakers like Barack Obama "batting" for him. There is a very small chance that the American economy recovers between now and November but that is highly unlikely. Therefore, as of today, the Democrats are favourites to re-take the White House and could even flip the Senate on a very good day.
Less Short Term Impact on British Politics
The Conservative majority is large enough that there will be no short term fundamental changes in British political dynamics. Keir Starmer is gaining some early plaudits for his PMQs performances but we could still be four and a half years from the next British election so it all feels a little irrelevant now. Boris Johnson may need to start watching his back in two to three years if his performance as Prime Minister continues to disappoint some influential Conservative factions but again, that is for the future. The Scottish Assembly elections next May could genuinely be historic but I think we need to hold back on making predictions on them for now as, unlike the US Presidential Election in November, I do think some underlying fundamentals cold shift by then.