Enda’s call: Should he stay or should he go?

Speculation rife over date of next general election

Fiach Kelly and Stephen Collins look back on the Dáil year and some of the key events and their political impact. They also look to the next election and weigh up the pros and cons of 2015 and 2015 dates.

 

There is one man who will ultimately decide the date of the general election. His confidant on that momentous call is a football.

In his usual homespun, slightly mawkish fashion, Enda Kenny has been telling people who inquire after the timing of the poll about a football in the boot of his car.

This football has a number of dates written on it and in his quieter moments, the Taoiseach kicks it into the air and waits for it to drop into his arms. The date which ends up looking up at him could be, at that moment in time, the date for the election.

Kenny’s yarn, told with a smile, deflects queries away from the question everyone in and around politics is asking: will the election be next spring, or will the Taoiseach cut and run after the October budget, and go to the polls in November?

The last possible date in the life of the 31st Dáil is March 8th, 2016, while the latest date for a general election is April 9th.

The timing of the poll dominates conversation around Leinster House like no other subject. Opinion varies from day to day, based on hunches which make the methods employed by the Donegal postman to forecast the weather look like cutting edge science.

Almost everyone at the top of Government - across both parties - insists it will be February or early March. Naturally, this convinces suspicious others it will definitely be the autumn.

Everyone also insists it is Kenny alone who will make that call, and the indications are he favours February. Yet Fine Gael has been making preparations to ensure it is ready for battle should he decide to go early, what one party figure calls “situation planning”. The car is being fine tuned, it is just a matter of when to start the ignition.

The Taoiseach himself has been doing some situation planning. His language on the election recently changed from promising to see out the Coalition’s full term to implementing its Programme for Government in full; a small, yet significant shift which provides wriggle room on timing. Should he go to the polls after Budget 2016, Kenny can argue the Programme for Government has been completed.

Public words to tee up an early election are matched by private ones.

Ministers and TDs are telling the Taoiseach their workloads will be complete by September, just in time for an early election. Staffers in Fine Gael are being quietly advised to take some time off over the next month because leave will be frowned upon thereafter.

Many TDs - across all parties - are going even further and are staying at home this summer, afraid to be away from their constituencies in case of an early poll.

In recent weeks, Fine Gael TDs have been making the short hop from Leinster House to the party’s Upper Mount Street offices to have photographs taken for their election posters. However, rumours of the party secretly booking outdoor advertising space for the October-November period are strongly denied.

Much of this can be explained as normal and proper planning on behalf of Fine Gael, but there are other indications Kenny is still tossing dates around in his head.

The party manifesto is said to be 75 per cent complete. Kenny’s campaign tour around the country has been finalised.

Meanwhile, the Connaught Telegraph late last month reported that the Taoiseach asked Fine Gael councillors in his Mayo constituency if he should go for an early election and was “surprised” by the number of favour of a pre-Christmas campaign.

Against all that, the party’s ardfheis is booked for the weekend of January 22nd, which would point towards a spring election. However, backbenchers are putting more store in the fact that many selection conventions, which are all supposed be complete before October, are being brought forward from their original dates. TDs believe this is more important that the the date of the ard fheis. The main argument for November is surprise, and getting the election out of the way.

The arguments for February or March are consistently made. Fine Gael emphasises stability and staying the course underlines that message.

Another argument for spring is to allow budget tax cuts and spending increases, as well as public sector pay increases, be felt in people’s pockets. Many in Fine Gael attribute to the party’s recovery from its late 2014 nadir to budget changes which took effect last January, and parties in power often increase their support following quiet periods over the summer and Christmas. The Taoiseach will also remember 1997, when the outgoing Rainbow Coalition went a few months early and lost to Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil.

The other factor when calling the election is the Labour Party, currently languishing around 7 per cent and watching many of its biggest names bowing out. It would dearly like to hold on to the spring.

“Some Fine Gael backbenchers might be thinking that way (an early election) but the decision makers aren’t,” said one Labour figure. “A big thing for them will be us recovering in the polls to a level where the game is on and we’re not there yet.”

The idea of Fine Gael waiting for Labour has its limits, however. The senior party may see little benefit in hanging around too long - risking, for example, a hospital crisis - if Labour shows no signs of improvement in the autumn.

An increasingly worried Labour may start to attempt to create divisions with Fine Gael as the Government’s term ends. Both parties are already aware that must happen in an election itself, such as Labour warning public sector workers not to trust Fine Gael in Government.

Trouble could start if Labour starts throwing shapes early, possibly around the budget. Fine Gael, which hopes to see its own poll figures tick towards the 30 per cent mark later this year, may see no benefit in giving a quarrelsome Labour Party time to recover.

Many Fine Gael backbenchers feel an autumn poll is more likely. Some report their workloads have increased substantially as constituents sniff an election in the air, and know deputies will go to further lengths to please when they are at their neediest.

Some ministers are also understood to be open to the idea of November, not least Minister for Finance Michael Noonan. “Kenny is cautious,” said one Cabinet member. “Noonan is talking about November the whole time, but it won’t be.”

Noonan is also said to be less sympathetic to the view that Fine Gael should wait for Labour, a ruthlessness perhaps borne of his own bruising experiences of politics.

However, it would also be wrong to cast Noonan within Kenny’s closest circle on matters like this. The Taoiseach is more likely to rely on people like Mark Kennelly, his chief of staff, adviser Mark Mortell and Tom Curran, the party’s general secretary.

As Leinster House rises from the summer recess, the political parlour game of guessing the date will continue until the Taoiseach enters the chamber to dissolve the 31st Dáil.

Nobody knows exactly when that will be except Kenny, and maybe his football.

How prepared are the other parties?

Fianna Fáil says its manifesto is almost complete and it has three quarters of its candidates selected. Senior figures say they are operating on the basis that the election is likely in November.

Sinn Féin has almost finished the first phase of its candidate selection process, with its conventions almost complete. The second phase will involve assessing whether additional candidates should be added in some constituencies, and this will take place in the next few months. Manifesto preparation is also advanced.

Renua Ireland is still in the process of selecting candidates, and it currently has 11 in place. As well as its three TDs - Lucinda Creighton, Terence Flanagan and Billy Timmins - and its senator, Paul Bradford, the party has four councillors and a number of first time candidates.

One party source said candidate selection is a “difficult game”, adding: “There are a lot of political foxes waiting to see how the wind is blowing in September.”

The Independent Alliance, spearheaded by Finian McGrath and Shane Ross, has 11 general election candidates confirmed so far and hopes to have at least 20 lined up by the autumn. It has also yet to complete its statement of aims and loose election platform.

The new Social Democrats party founded by Roisin Shortall, Catherine Murphy and Stephen Donnelly, announced today, has yet to fully take shape.

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