The battle of the billion-euro bandwagons is under way in Dublin Bay South.
In a move which surprised nobody, Sinn Féin’s Magic Money Bus has been diverted to the constituency for the duration of the byelection. But the weekend arrival of Fine Gael’s Overpromise Express took some people by surprise.
Mary Lou McDouble-Decker (shiny green) was suddenly joined by Leo Varadcoach (shiny blue). The Tánaiste revved it up at his party’s ardfheis on Saturday evening and drove it immediately onto the campaign trail.
Both of these machines are highly promising vehicles and are done out accordingly in “sun, moon and stars” livery.
Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy noted this development during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil on Tuesday, listing some of the big promises made by Leo during his keynote address.
Many, she pointed out modestly, were filched from her party’s long-standing policies on things like improved public services, better pay and conditions for workers, more money for social welfare and a big increase to State investment in housing.
So many commitments.
Forty thousand extra houses a year, for example, if she heard rightly.
And that emergency €4 billion the Government had to pump into the health service during the Covid-19 emergency? Well, according to the Tánaiste, they are going to keep on paying it for the foreseeable.
On Saturday, Leo discovered 'solidarity' and told a very touching story of how the Covid-19 crisis melted the hardened conservative fiscal heart of a political party
But Catherine was a little bit concerned. All the promises from the leader of Fine Gael sound great, but how on earth is he going pay for them?
Of course, anybody who read their newspapers or listened to their commentators ahead of and in the immediate aftermath of the ardfheis will know that the party is now in the throes of a “major policy shift”.
On Saturday, Leo discovered “solidarity” and told a very touching story of how the Covid-19 crisis melted the hardened conservative fiscal heart of a political party.
“The pandemic has caused us all to re-evaluate what really matters to us the most,” was how he put it.
It’s like those people who go to sleep and wake up speaking in a foreign accent. Leo got up on Saturday night and suddenly started spouting pidgin Socialist.
Catherine Murphy was most impressed.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we witnessed a political transformation unlike almost anything we’ve seen for the last 20 years. Having been an enthusiastic Tory fiscal conservative for his entire life, Mr Varadkar has seen the light,” she marvelled.
“There were so many spending commitments announced that Fine Gael delegates must have been checking to make sure that they were at the right event.”
Flashy election promises which may turn out to be duds invariably bring the exploits of one peerless political dissembler to mind. Naturally, deputy Murphy couldn’t help but think of Boris Johnson – “the Tánaiste’s other political inspiration”, as she called him – and the famously fictitious slogans on his Brexit bus.
“Taoiseach, I wonder if you’re fearful the next time you’re down in Dublin Bay South that you’ll come across a Fine Gael bus with a big sign on the side of it saying there’s ‘€4 billion extra a year for the HSE’ emblazoned on the side of it.”
How much did Micheál Martin know about the announcements his fellow Coalition leader was going to make? Was he even consulted? Does he stand over them?
The Taoiseach got to his feet, smiling.
It isn’t every day a party leader is grilled in the Dáil over the contents of a speech delivered by another party leader. The fact that Martin and Varadkar are sharing power gave Murphy a legitimate reason to ask the Taoiseach what he made of the Tánaiste’s conference address, but he was neither going to give her a straight answer nor keep a straight face.
“I didn’t get a chance to watch all the Fine Gael ardfheis but I did pick up some aspects of it from the extensive media coverage,” he fibbed.
But his Minister for Health has been in “rather good form” since the speech went out and he heard the promise that the billions poured into his department while the pandemic raged remains on the table for another year.
Stephen Donnelly might “optimistically think” his budget discussions with the Minister for Public Expenditure “may not be as difficult or challenging” as they normally are because of what Varadkar promised, “but that remains to be seen”.
Years of experience
Micheál Martin was speaking from many years of experience.
Catherine returned to the question a second time, because the Taoiseach ignored it first time around.
This would have been an ideal time to crank up the PA system for an urgent announcement. 'Large pinch of salt to row three! Large pinch of salt for the Taoiseach!'
Does he stand over all the big spending promises made by Leo Varadkar? “Because they were a very, very, long list of announcements.”
Are we seriously looking at 40,000 extra houses a year? Is it really credible that what was promised in these announcements can be paid for without tax increases and just by way of growth? Will the measures be included in the Summer Economic Statement?
Or, asked the Social Democrat co-leader (hardly an innocent abroad), “is this just about electioneering?”
This would have been an ideal time to crank up the auditorium’s PA system for an urgent announcement.
“Large pinch of salt to row three! Large pinch of salt for the Taoiseach!”
Firm government commitment?
Ah here. It was a televised conference pitch at the party faithful and floating voters improbably tuning in on a sunny summer’s evening in June. There is a byelection in the offing and it is Fine Gael’s to lose.
“The Tánaiste’s speech was to the Fine Gael ardfheis and, as a party leader, of course the Tánaiste is quite entitled to address and present the Fine Gael perspective on a variety of issues,” was the Fianna Fáil leader’s deadpan response.
Micheál suggested that Monday night’s report to Cabinet by finance Ministers Donohoe and McGrath on the future expenditure might be “a more sober assessment of the situation” over the next few years.
The Taoiseach’s reply fell just short of Pat Rabbitte’s famous remark about making election promises – to be fair to him, Rabbitte was misinterpreted – which are subsequently broken. “Isn’t that what you tend to do during an election?” he replied in an interview when charged with not supplying enough detail on the promises, having “kept it really simple”.
Micheál was implying that what the Tánaiste said on Saturday – isn’t that what you tend to do during an ardfheis?
Fine Gael is worried about the threat from Sinn Féin in this byelection. Sinn Féin knows how to promise. Its rival is hitting back. The battle buses are circling each other – Mary Lou McDouble-Decker and Leo Varadcoach.
Canvassing in Ringsend, bumper to bumper.
Wait a minute, where’s all the money coming from?