“We have to expose them for what they are,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told his parliamentary party, in the course of a barrage of criticism of Fianna Fáil on Wednesday night.
Fianna Fáil, he told his TDs, would “bankrupt the country, as they have done in the past”.
Fianna Fáil's finance spokesman Michael McGrath (not the leader, noticeably) issued a spirited response, which he repeated on RTÉ's Morning Ireland: it was "political mudslinging". He trumpeted Fianna Fáil's record on supporting the budgets and pointing out – not unfairly – that it was Fine Gael who made the biggest promise of the last election: to abolish the Universal Social Charge.
As ever, senior political figures in both parties were more frank, speaking privately. The barbs were sharper, profane and more personalised.
That’s not unusual. But the exchanges this week are part of a trend of hostility between the two parties that has been growing in recent months.
They believe Fianna Fáil's job is to shut up and let them do whatever they want
In the Dáil earlier that day, Varadkar accused his partners in the confidence and supply agreement of dishonesty: “when people go around the country promising every interest group they will do everything they ask this year . . . As is always the case, the truth hurts. That is what Deputy Micheál Martin’s party is doing and I am keeping a record of all the promises his spokespersons are making as the weeks go by. Hundreds of millions in extra spending are being promised every week for every interest group and it is all being promised now. That is exactly the kind of philosophy that landed this country in the hole out of which we had to take it a number of years ago.”
Stiffened with excitement
His backbenchers stiffened with excitement – they love this stuff – while the Fianna Fáilers slouched sourly.
“They believe Fianna Fáil’s job is to shut up and let them do whatever they want,” said one senior figure. The rest of his observation was colourful, indicating an unwillingness to follow this course of action.
Varadkar does not do this kind of thing by accident. And Fine Gael sources close to the thinking of the leadership say that this marks a deliberate departure: the party wants to get back talking about the economy, and get back to attacking Fianna Fáil’s record on it.
So Fine Gael has produced a dossier of Fianna Fáil promises, and is stacking up the numbers to throw back at them. Some of the Fine Gael numbers are speculative, to say the least, but they have a point about Fianna Fáil showing plenty of leg to interest groups of late. That tends to be what opposition parties do, of course.
But there’s another dynamic at play here too: the deterioration in relations between the two parties, and their leaders, has been evident for some time.
In a way, this is not surprising. Varadkar was elected leader by his party partly on the promise to stand up to Fianna Fáil, which many Fine Gaelers inside and outside Government felt was pushing Enda Kenny around.
Since then, relations have soured considerably. Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin did not click on a personal level, but they had shared experiences, shared understandings and established a passable modus operandi between them. Varadkar and Martin, by contrast, are from different planets.
Martin has had the better of their face-offs so far. Varadkar backed down on Frances Fitzgerald, and again on the Strategic Communications Unit. But he is a quick student, and better at ruffling Fianna Fáil’s feathers than he sometimes realises.
Fine Gael is acutely aware it got the timing of the last election wrong, and is very, very keen not to make that mistake again
Fianna Fáil TDs like to think they have his measure; but they’re not sure. The rivals circle each other warily and suspiciously.
Underpinning all this is the common realisation that the confidence and supply arrangement between the two parties is coming to its end. There is at present zero appetite in Fianna Fáil for it to be renewed, and little expectation in Fine Gael that it will be. If that stays the same – and there’s little sign that it won’t – then we are in the ante-room to a general election.
So the question becomes about timing. Fine Gael is acutely aware it got the timing of the last election wrong, and is very, very keen not to make that mistake again. Within Government circles, there is a dread of concluding the budget, and then finding themselves at Fianna Fáil’s mercy.
Varadkar’s people are keen to go at a time of their choosing, not of Micheál Martin’s.
Stephen Collins's column in Thursday's Irish Times, arguing that Varadkar should go to the country after the abortion referendum, caused a wobble of excitement in Leinster House. In truth, few people in either of the big parties expect a pre-summer election. But they expect one pretty soon after that.
That is what is at the root of the skirmishing of recent days. It also suggests it will not let up until voters go to the polls.