All the focus in politics now on the first fortnight in February
Knowing his Government is on its last legs, Varadkar has prepared the ground for the announcement he is expected to make this week
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar slowly shifted his language from the previous strict adherence to his line that polling day should fall in May to saying he would call an election when it was the right time for the country. Photograph: Getty Images
The 32nd Dáil will have lasted almost four years by the time of the general election, a much longer period than most believed when the last election threw up its inconclusive result on February 26th, 2016.
Given the novel and at times fragile governing construct that contest threw up – Fianna Fáil underpinning a Fine Gael-led minority Government in a confidence and supply agreement – TDs have laboured for years in the belief that an election could come at any time.
After those years of uncertainty, they now know an election will be held within weeks.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has made his call and, while not being definitive, clearly indicated on RTÉ’s This Week that he will dissolve the Dáil in the coming days for an early February general election.
The signs that Varadkar was moving in this direction were evident since before Christmas, when he began to carve out the space to allow himself to go to the country earlier than his previous suggested date of May 2020.
He slowly shifted his language from the previous strict adherence to his line that polling day should fall in May to saying he would call an election when it was the right time for the country.
He then asked the impossible of Micheál Martin, asking that the Fianna Fáil leader should get his TDs to actually vote with the Government rather than abstain, as outlined in the confidence and supply agreement.
Knowing his Fine Gael-minority government was on its last legs due to dwindling Dáil numbers, he prepared the ground for the announcement he is expected to make this week.
Perhaps the Taoiseach was content to allow events of recent days – with Independent TDs shying away from supporting him and general uncertainty building momentum towards an election – play out.
The past week has brought Varadkar to the destination he had likely settled on weeks ago: a general election campaign he hopes will be bookended by Brexit, what he on Sunday called “the big job of this Government”.
If Varadkar opts for a February 7th election date, the UK will leave the EU one week out from polling day, and the issue will feature heavily in the final week of the campaign, when many voters make up their minds.
The RTÉ interview offered some clues to how Varadkar will run the campaign: attacking Fianna Fáil on its record on the economy while offering praise for those he may hope to coax into coalition if he is successful in the election.
On the issue of hospital beds, he said Fine Gael had “reversed” the cuts in health implemented by Fianna Fáil between 2007 and 2011, and added that he had worked with Brendan Howlin in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition of 2011-2016 to increase investment.
His interview also prompted action across political parties and among Independent TDs and candidates. Many TDs had already begun a heavy canvass schedule, but others had held back.
Considering their future
Decisions on whether to actually run at all will also be made by others in the coming days, with two members of the Independent Alliance considering their future.
Minister of State for Disability Issues Finian McGrath is understood to be consulting his family and local organisation on whether he will stand again in Dublin Bay North, with sources close to the political veteran saying he is “50-50”.
Fianna Fáil is expected to make a few further ticket changes this week, such as the addition of a candidate in Cork North Central, and the party announced that Dara Calleary, its deputy leader, will be director of elections.
Fine Gael’s executive council will also add more candidates in some constituencies as all political focus now turns to the first fortnight in February.