Fine Gael takes aim at rivals after Taoiseach suggests election date

Varadkar wants poll to take place on May 20th, later than Fianna Fáil’s preference

Irish Times Political Editor Pat Leahy reports from the Fine Gael pre Dáil parliamentary party think-in at Garryvoe in east Cork where Brexit and the budget are high on the agenda. Video: Bryan O’Brien

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that next May is the “right time” for a general election as he and his ministers readied the ground for election attacks on Fianna Fáil and other rivals.

The first day of the Fine Gael parliamentary party think-in in Garryvoe, Co Cork saw Mr Varadkar outline his preferred election timetable and attempt to win back middle class voters from the Green Party.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, whose party supports the Government through the confidence and supply deal, has said his preferred election date is next spring. Senior Fine Gael figures said they would prefer a date at the end of May.

Fianna Fáil sources said Mr Varadkar’s statement was a “distraction from the lack of preparedness on Brexit”. Figures in both parties, however, appear relaxed about any disagreements on election timing.

Mr Martin did not rule out agreeing an election date with Mr Varadkar earlier this week and a senior Fine Gael minister privately said there is little difference between the “spring” and late May.

“I think May 2020 is the right moment,” Mr Varadkar told his TDs and senators. “It will allow to us to complete a full parliamentary session in the new year, discharge our Government duties around St Patrick’s Day and the March European Council and have a new Government in place well in advance of the next summer recess.

“We should also, by then, have secured a Brexit Deal or have guided the country through the worst of no-deal.”

‘Trojan horse’

He also criticised the Green Party, and said it could be “the trojan horse that lets Fianna Fáil back in with Micheál Martin as Taoiseach”.

Such a pointed attack will be seen as an effort by Fine Gael to win back middle class voters who opted for Eamon Ryan’s party in the local and European elections earlier this year.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said Fianna Fáil has no plan, no polices and “no team” when compared to “team Fine Gael”, an indication that his party intends to attack what it sees as the weakness of the Fianna Fáil frontbench.

Meanwhile, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe indicated he may not increase carbon tax by €10 per tonne in the Budget.

Department of Finance officials have suggested an increase in carbon tax from €10 to €20 per tonne in 2020 as part of a trajectory to reach €80 per tonne by 2030. Mr Martin earlier this week said he favoured smaller increase of €5 or €6 next year.

‘Clarity’

Mr Donohoe declined to give specifics but said: “We are better off having clarity regarding a set of gradual increases, than making a very big change and finding out that the argument cannot be won in relation to it”.

Government sources said there will be a carbon tax increase but it “might not be €10”.

“What matters more is a credible trajectory,” said one.

Money raised through carbon tax in the budget is now unlikely to be given directly back to households in the form of a cheque, with Fine Gael TDs favouring increasing environmental grants and fuel allowances instead.

Mr Donohoe and Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton chaired a session on carbon tax at the think-in on Wednesday. A number of those present, such as TD Noel Rock and Emer Currie, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s running mate in Dublin West, said they would prefer the cash raised to be reinvested in local projects to help people transition to lower carbon lifestyles and increases to fuel allowances to soften the blow of increases for the most vulnerable.