Leo Varadkar’s big decision - will the Taoiseach call a November election?
Brexit deal and date of Irish general election are linked
It’s the biggest decision yet for Leo Varadkar’s term in office. File photograph: Peter Byrne/PA
Two questions have dominated conversations in the corridors of Leinster House this week. The first: Is there going to be a Brexit deal? The second: Are we going to have an early election?
Both questions are related, with the second dependent on the first. In a no-deal scenario, or in an extension situation where the outcome of Brexit negotiations is not assured, the prospects of an election are low. It is only if a Brexit deal is a certainty that thoughts can turn to an election.
That will depend on more than a positive outcome from Brussels this week and in London at the weekend. Moreover, at this moment in time, the backing of the DUP, or for that matter, the special Westminster sitting on Saturday is not assured.
If there is a deal, the domestic repercussions will revolve around the second question, about holding an election. “It’s the biggest decision Leo Varadkar will make in his time as Taoiseach,” a senior Minister told me over the weekend. That Minister was of the view that is would be the optimum time for Fine Gael to go. “He would be getting the accolades from Brexit. We could say Leo delivered on Brexit phase one, now put him back to steer us through phase two.”
There are very few TDs of any party who believe the election will take place in May 2020, notwithstanding the Taoiseach’s existence. “He’s saying May 2020 but he has to say that,” said a Fine Gael backbencher. “If he were to say he’s thinking of an election before anything came out of Brussels, that would cause uncertainty and he’d be accused of making hay out of it. He can’t say anything like that until it’s settled.”
If an election were called, the minimum period for a campaign is 18 days excluding Sundays and public holidays. So if an election was called on November 1st it could take place anytime after Wednesday, November 22nd. However, any extension, even a week, could push the election back into December. It would be a difficult decision for a Government to hold an election with only 15 shopping days to Christmas.
Avoiding bear traps
That said, there are obvious bear traps the Government could avoid if it goes early. Four by-elections are due to take place at the end of November, and Fine Gael is unlikely to win any. Fianna Fáil could win three of them - Wexford; Cork North Central; and Dublin Fingal - which would give Gael’s largest rival huge impetus.
The problem is that the by-elections must be held by the New Year. This stems from legislation that was introduced after the then Fianna Fáil government walked itself into a debacle of its own making in late 2009. It delayed holding the byelection in Donegal South West. Pearse Doherty, then a Senator, took a High Court case and won. In the subsequent byelection he won by a landslide, giving a massive fillip to his own party and a premonition of Fianna Fáil’s soon-to-be demise. The legislation provided for by-elections to take place within six months of the seat being vacated. The four MEPs technically vacated their seats in July allowing a window until January.
If there were an extensions and the Government decided for an election early in the New Year, you could have the potential farce of four by-elections being held, followed quickly by a general election.
The New Year isn’t exactly a fruitful period either when you are nearing the end of your term. Trolleys and homelessness are big issues in deepest winter. In addition, the ‘feel good’ afterglow from Brexit will have worn off by then.
The arguments for a November election seem compelling but there is a counter-intuitive view, mostly put forward by Fianna Fáil (they would, wouldn’t they?) and a few of the more wizened Fine Gael politicians. For them, calling an early election can be a perilous risk. The rationale for calling it is often not the rationale of voters on polling day. And that’s a negative.
They point to the fact Leo Varadkar has never gone through an intense national election campaign as leader before. He could be champion but he could also belly flop. Theresa May’s experience provides a salutary lesson. But there are precedents too in Irish electoral history. Charlie Haughey twice called snap general elections, in 1981 and in 1989 (when polls suggested he could win a majority). On both occasions it backfired - partly because voters did not buy the line an election was necessary.
Varadkar will need to be mindful of that. He will need to be conscious also that in key constituencies, Fine Gael has yet to sort out its best candidates in half a dozen places after a mixed local election. Even with a Brexit lift seat gains are not guaranteed. It is strong in Dublin but that won’t translate into a seats bonanza.
Elsewhere, the gains will be in ones and two rather than in droves. And that’s with a gale win at this back.
Technically, too, the extension of the confidence-and-supply agreement with Fianna Fáil is not formally concluded until the Finance Bill and Social Welfare Bill have completed their passage through the Oireachtas.
Fine Gael was here before when then taoiseach Enda Kenny was wracked with indecision over going early in November 2015. He decided against and went the following summer when Fine Gael had a relatively indifferent election. Some of his colleagues and commentators argued the delay cost Fine Gael as many as 10 seats. In reality, there is no evidence to support the theory Fine Gael would have done better.
It is true that parties in government get into a bubble mentality towards the end of term where they believe something magical will crop up to reverse their flagging fortunes. It does not happen. It just follows the theory that once you begin to seep support it’s really hard to regain it.