Despite dissent, Coalition looks set to hold the line
ANALYSIS: While this budget has not been the most severe in strictly monetary terms, it is arguably the harshest on the basis that the Government was confronted with choices that were not only painful but punitive.
The difficulties in reaching a €3.5 billion adjustment were compounded by the “triple-lock” to which the Coalition has committed itself: no increases in income tax; no social welfare rate cuts; and no cuts in public sector pay. Hence, a steep property tax as well as the cuts in PRSI exemption, child benefit and the carer’s respite grant in a budget that Taoiseach Enda Kenny himself admitted was “unpalatable”.
The difficulties in drafting it led to the first serious friction between Fine Gael and Labour Ministers, and the fraught final meeting last weekend led to walkouts and frayed tempers.
Two trends have been noticeable since Wednesday. The first is the severity of some of the cuts and taxes (and the cumulative effect of all of them on lower- and middle-income families) has caused deep concern for backbench TDs from both parties.
Some 20 deputies from Fine Gael and Labour have been publicly critical of four key changes: respite; child benefit;PRSI changes; and property tax. Labour has also embarrassed a pre-election advertisement which warned of six things if Fine Gael assumed power alone. All six have happened, or will occur.
The second trend is a countervailing one. In every public utterance since Wednesday, senior Ministers have been resolute that the budget will not be unravelled.
A senior Minister said yesterday that there would be “no Deis issue this year”. This was a reference to the disadvantaged school funding withdrawn in last year’s budget and partially restored after protests from the back benches.
Another senior Government figure said the compromise reached was the only one that both parties could live with. “It would be an appalling vista to have to revisit it again.”
The strong message being sent out, from the Taoiseach and Tánaiste down, is that there will be no changes, period. The most vocal critic has been Labour Party chairman Colm Keaveney who has already emailed 1,400 party members, although others including Clare TD Michael McNamara and a number of Dublin TDs are concerned about the child benefit cuts.
As TDs returned to their constituencies at the weekend, the feedback was uniformly negative and agitated. Hence, a new groundswell of criticism emerged, this time from Fine Gael TDs, focused on the respite care cuts.
The unhappiness is clear but how will it play out?
It looks like the Government is unwavering. That means that Government TDs will have to toe the line and vote for the Government in this week’s key Dáil votes. Those are the votes on the Social Welfare Bill and the Sinn Féin no confidence motion in the Government. Is it likely that any backbench TDs will rebel? A few, notably Keaveney, have hinted at it.
But the consensus in both parties is the Government will hold the line, and its numbers.