Burton treads fine line over election date

Tánaiste’s hopes for a spring election contain an element of wishful thinking

Joan Burton raised the timing of the election with the Taoiseach in a meeting the two had before yesterday’s Cabinet meeting. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Joan Burton raised the timing of the election with the Taoiseach in a meeting the two had before yesterday’s Cabinet meeting. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

There is a delicate balance between gently warning your Coalition partner not to call an early election against your wishes and exhibiting what can look like a fear of facing the electorate.

In her comments reaffirming her view that the election should be held next year, Tánaiste Joan Burton found herself on the wrong side of that dividing line.

For many months now, senior Labour figures have believed Fine Gael would wait until the junior party reached a level where the Coalition could be re-elected before both would go to the country.

That may still the case but such an approach always contained an element of wishful thinking.

Fine Gael was always going to suit itself, at whatever time the Taoiseach felt was optimal.

As an experienced Fianna Fáil hand said yesterday: “No larger party gives a fiddler’s about the smaller party, speaking from experience.”

As The Irish Times reported yesterday, Kenny is leaning strongly towards November. Burton was panicked by the story and raised the timing of the election with the Taoiseach in a meeting the two had before yesterday’s Cabinet meeting.

At the meeting, she repeated her preference for a 2016 election but it is understood no assurances on a time frame were given by the Taoiseach.

“If he had, she would have said it, I’m sure,” said one Fine Gael figure. “The date will be picked by the Taoiseach in the best interests of the country.”

‘Political logic’

While confirming Kenny gave no such assurances, the Labour side of Government counter that Fine Gael should heed their warnings. “They’d better,” said one Labour figure. “[There is] no political logic to what they are doing.”

Yet it would be wrong to characterise Burton’s unhappiness – budget negotiations are also reportedly tense – as representative of the Labour position as a whole.

Other Labour Ministers – such as Brendan Howlin, Jan O’Sullivan and Alex White – have all adopted a somewhat different position.

They say their preference is for 2016, but are ready for whenever the Taoiseach will call it. This altogether more realistic approach acknowledges that there is unlikely to be an electoral crock of gold waiting for the party on the far side of Christmas. It also acknowledges the fact that the calling of an election is the constitutional prerogative of the Taoiseach.

FG resentment

It is Burton and, to a lesser extent, her deputy leader Alan Kelly, who have been most angered by the talk of an early election. However, they also risk angering Fine Gael if they resist too strongly.

It is not impossible to see many Fine Gael TDs being resentful of the Taoiseach being prevented from exercising his constitutional right. A damaging row could make the last few months of this Government, if Kenny plays the long game, bitter and unstable.

While it is incorrect to say Kenny and Fine Gael have given up on Labour as future partners in government, the Taoiseach is also likely to have arrived at this conclusion that Labour – and Fine Gael for that matter – are not going to see major increases in support until the campaign proper.

Figures at the top of both parties have for months acknowledged the election will be won or lost in the last 10 days.

The opinion poll dials are unlikely to shift until then and whether those 10 days are in November or March is irrelevant.

An unseemly row over the timing of the election will overshadow the start of a campaign and do some damage to the message of coherence the Coalition is trying to sell.

However, while it is unlikely to be fatal to the Government’s chances of re-election, it could damage the Kenny-Burton relationship which, although not strained, is far from easy.

“I don’t think one or two months will make a difference,” said one Fine Gael source last night. “We are seeking re-election because we work well together.”

The same figure said the decision of the rainbow government to go early in 1997 is often wrongly blamed for its defeat. The same may be true of 2015 or, if Burton gets her way, 2016.

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