Varadkar at the mercy of his opponents following no-confidence vote

Government survives motion, but probably won’t be able to dictate timing of election

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy: The hours before the debate were characterised by frantic arm-twisting and wheeler-dealing. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell for The Irish Times

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy: The hours before the debate were characterised by frantic arm-twisting and wheeler-dealing. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell for The Irish Times

 

The Government narrowly survived a motion of no confidence in the Dáil on Tuesday night, but it is abundantly clear the administration has reached the end of the line.

The three-vote margin was seven less than the previous no-confidence motion in Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy in September of last year. The contraction of the majority feels like an accurate barometer of the seeping away of the Government’s authority.

The message of the vote was two-fold: firstly, the Dáil, citing the views of the voters it represents, believes the response to the housing crisis has been too timid, too slow, too “my-department-is-in-discussion-with-the-relevant-stakeholders”.

And secondly, as soon as Brexit reaches a medium-term conclusion in the new year – and even, frankly, if it does not – Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s administration will no longer have the consent of the Dáil to continue in office. We are pretty close to that point as it is.

Wheeler-dealing

The hours before the debate were characterised by frantic arm-twisting and wheeler-dealing around the corridors of Leinster House and Government Buildings. It is the way of politics that the Independent TDs who held the fate of the Government in their hands – Noel Grealish, Michael Lowry, Denis Naughten and the others – had requests to be met and favours to be granted before their votes were secured. It is an irony not lost on any of them that some Fine Gaelers have had some disobliging things to say about them in the past.

What if somebody puts down a motion of no confidence in Minister for Health Simon Harris?

As well as being prepared to do bit of business (that’d be the carrot), the Government also made clear that if the vote went down, it would call a Christmas general election (and that’d be the stick). Subtle, it was not.

So what now? Varadkar’s view – that the Government should be brought to an agreed and orderly end in the spring with an election in early summer – is not that far away from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s. But there must be serious doubts about whether they can make it that far.

Rationale

If Boris Johnson wins the British general election and takes the UK out of the EU with a transition phase, Martin’s rationale for allowing the Government to remain in office is then at an end. And what if somebody – with the excuse of waiting lists, or record queues at emergency departments, or further overspends at the Children’s Hospital, or maybe with no excuse at all – puts down a motion of no confidence in Minister for Health Simon Harris? What does Martin do then?

Or, to put it another way, why should he allow Varadkar to wait until the summer for a more advantageous time to have an election? The truth is that once Brexit is done, Varadkar is at the mercy of his opponents about the timing of an election.