TDs’ silent phones a measure of the budget’s success among constituents

In front of Leinster House, gardaí mounted barricades for protesters who never came

Minister for Public Expenditure  and reform Brendan Howlin and Minister for Finance  Michael Noonan at a press conference on the 2016 Budget. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Public Expenditure and reform Brendan Howlin and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan at a press conference on the 2016 Budget. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Much like Commissioner Gordon waiting for the big red phone to ring from Batman, Government TDs have by now learned to judge the political success of a budget on whether trouble comes calling to their offices.

Recent years have seen Fine Gael and Labour budgets implement significant spending cuts and tax increases with Budget 2015 and Budget 2016 giving something back.

This week’s pre-election budget paved the way for the campaign ahead and marked the most generous giveaway since the crash.

When Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin served up hard medicine, TDs would immediately know how the public felt: the phones in their constituency offices lit up with complaints.

This year, many deputies felt the true measure of this budget’s success was that the phones stayed silent. They also cautiously waited for a disguised bomb or tripwire in the budget but it has yet to come.

Many Fine Gael TDs also privately felt the budget was a perfect platform for a November election, but that ship has now sailed. Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday definitively ruled out an early election and promised the Coalition will run into 2016.

One Coalition source joked that Ministers will be casting around for work to do after clearing their schedules in anticipation of an early poll. “We cleared the decks to be ready for November,” the source said.

Leinster House yesterday was relatively quiet for a budget week, with many TDs returning to their constituencies to prepare for the election. The Dáil will not sit today, due to the funeral of Garda Tony Golden.

Quietly satisfied

“I don’t think it is going to set the world on fire but the bottom line is it’s better than another kick in the teeth,” said Labour Clare deputy Michael McNamara.

Ruairí Quinn, who was the minister for finance in 1997 and introduced the last pre-election budget when the Rainbow Coalition involving Fine Gael and Labour was seeking a return to power, said the package was not just a “three-legged stool” but was, in fact, a centipede.

The mood was common among Labour TDs, used to facing placards rather than plaudits since the Coalition came to power.

Mounted barricades

The mood in Fine Gael was equally good, with Noonan and Kenny repeating their budget messages at a meeting of the parliamentary party last night.

Senator Michael D’Arcy, as well as deputies Alan Farrell, Bernard Durkan and Jerry Buttimer praised the €1.5 billion package.

However, concerns were expressed about slow progress on housing, but no reference was made to Noonan’s current row with Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly.

Some TDs often roll their eyes when parliamentary party members go overboard with praise for the Minister in the room, or the Taoiseach, if he is there.

However, even TDs who grudgingly accept Kenny’s leadership said the “feelgood factor is strong”. The main concern now is whether that can be sustained through the winter and all the way to election day, now likely in February.

The feeling that maybe it would have been better for Fine Gael, at any rate, to go to the country with this budget in its sails was common across the Dáil chamber.

Fianna Fáilers, who say pensioners will be insulted with only a €3 increase, and Independents felt it provided a boost that could have propelled the Government through a short November campaign. Some Coalition backbenchers may have favoured an election sooner but they will have to console themselves with selling a budget that lends itself to door-to-door retail politics for longer than expected.

Looking back over their term in office, many feel happy with the compromise.