Welcome, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, to the big-time.
The new leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP) has gone from the relative safety of his native Galicia to the lion’s den of national politics in Madrid. He took over the leadership of the PP in April, widely hailed by those in the party as its voice of reason after the helter-skelter mayhem of the Pablo Casado years. Here he is, they said: a more serious, more experienced figure than his predecessor, with none of the dallying with the far right or that hipster-beard nonsense, and a lot more credibility when it comes to winning elections.
And now, as the political season resumes, the real tests will come for Núñez Feijóo. The run-in to a general election which must take place by late 2023 has begun, with a flurry of local elections to come in the spring.
The overwhelming feeling within the PP that led to him being earmarked for the job, almost before Casado had finished being unceremoniously ousted, was that Núñez Feijóo’s electoral record shows he can deliver a stellar performance next year, culminating in him becoming prime minister. His record appears to speak for itself: four victories in a row in Galician regional elections between 2009 and 2020, each time with a majority.
In 2018, he was also mooted for the national leadership, albeit with less cheerleading vigour from his colleagues, and he did not run for it. But this time round, in the wake of Casado’s sudden fall and as he coyly played at being unsure about taking the job, Núñez Feijóo’s saviour vibe glowed particularly bright. It helped, perhaps that he is just that bit older now, with the look of an intellectual but slightly edgy PE teacher. When you see him in a suit and tie it’s hard to believe that this is the same man who used to go on holiday with a notorious narco – which might explain why nobody seems to talk about that any more.
Indeed, the arrival of this lean, bespectacled Galician in the national political arena seems to confirm the end of the era of those fresh-faced disruptors who emerged between 2014 and 2018, shaking up Spanish politics before singeing their wings and crashing to the ground: Podemos founder Pablo Iglesias, Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera and Casado, with their spin, tweets and Game of Thrones fixations, all suffered variations of that fate and Pedro Sánchez could do so too in the not-too-distant future. Let’s return, the PP’s leader seems to be saying, to something a bit more gnarly and a lot less sexy – some old-school, unvarnished Galician oak to tackle the troubling times ahead.
In June, ahead of the Andalusia regional election, I saw Núñez Feijóo speak in Málaga, where he seemed determined to ram this message home. “This speech might sound old-fashioned and boring and untrendy but I’m sorry, politics isn’t a fashion or a reality show and nor should it be,” he said. Close your eyes and it could be another Galician leader of the conservatives, the ponderous Mariano Rajoy, speaking.
The polls show that Núñez Feijóo has given the PP a bounce and that they are ahead of the Socialists. That, for now, appears to be justification enough for the party’s decision to choose him.
But those who see Núñez Feijóo as a silver bullet should not get carried away. That’s partly because his seemingly extraordinary electoral record in Galicia should carry an asterisk. As a Galician-speaking moderate conservative, his victories were impressive but really no more surprising than, say, Bayern Munich repeatedly winning the Bundesliga. The political stage in Santiago de Compostela is a world away from the national arena in Madrid and it could be argued that the relatively tame atmosphere of the former is not the ideal place to hone your skills for the latter.
Núñez Feijóo is now responsible for managing a national party, a much more daunting task than being a regional ‘baron’. The PP has at least one self-absorbed populist renegade, in the form of Isabel Díaz Ayuso, constantly threatening to pre-empt or trample over any policy he might carefully formulate. Then there is the capital’s fierce and powerful right-wing media which, however centrist the PP leader may want to be, will exhort him to be as extreme and uncompromising as possible on everything from the Catalan question to the renewal of the judiciary. And meanwhile, his own abilities will come under scrutiny like never before. In his recent Senate debate with Sánchez, for example, Núñez Feijóo looked slightly flat-footed. If distancing himself from Casado’s hyperactive vitriol means coming to resemble the uber-passive Rajoy, he may have to reconsider his approach.