Varadkar ‘leaving his options open’ on early election
Taoiseach needs a compelling argument to call an election
Leo Varadkar has said talks on any deal extension should begin before its final budget, but Micheál Martin has said the arrangement allows for a review at the end of the year. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Far from printing election leaflets and posters, most TDs are spending the last days of this Dáil term counting the hours until the start of the summer recessat the end of next week.
A general election this year is still seen as unlikely despite recent speculation, but the deal underpinning the Fine Gael-led minority government is coming to an end.
The question of what succeeds it – an extension to the current arrangement or an election – will have to be faced in the coming weeks.
Senior figures in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil expect Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin to sit down soon, similar to how Martin reviewed the progress of the confidence and supply deal with Enda Kenny, Varadkar’s successor, in previous years.
Varadkar has said talks on any extension should begin before the third and final budget of the deal, but Martin has consistently countered that the arrangement allows for a review at the end of the year.
It is not yet clear if Varadkar will formally request that such talks begin over the remainder of the summer, but such a request is certain to be rejected.
Fianna Fáil believes the Taoiseach is attempting to create the circumstances in which he can call an autumn election. “The aggressor has been Leo,” said one party frontbencher. “He is the Taoiseach, his words matter. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Fine Gael sources say that Varadkar was leaving his options open, and word of strong polling nationally and in constituencies such as Dún Laoghaire has convinced some of the party’s strong position.
“Would we like an election if they [Fianna Fáil] caused it?” asked one Fine Gael minister. “Maybe we would.”
However, it was said the “majority view” among the Fine Gael parliamentary party is that the deal should be extended until the summer of 2020.
Fianna Fáil – in a weak position after the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment – has also largely come to the view that an extension to the confidence and supply deal is preferable to an election.
It has agreed with the budgetary parameters set down by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, and Martin has also said there should be no instability as the Brexit process reaches a conclusion later this year.
The remaining sticking point between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is over when talks on an extension should begin. Another member of the Fianna Fáil frontbench said the process could begin before the budget, although nothing would be agreed until the budget is passed. This view is not, however, shared by other senior sources.
If he wants to call an election in the autumn – those close to him insist he does not – Varadkar will have to break the confidence and supply agreement. The text of the deal, which Varadkar helped negotiate, is clear: “It is agreed that both parties to this agreement will review this Framework Agreement at the end of 2018.”
The Taoiseach has argued that post-Brexit Britain may not be trusted to strike future trade deals if it does not keep its commitments on the Border. “How could anyone make a deal with a country that doesn’t stand by its commitments?” he recently asked.
A similar question could be asked of him and his party if he tries to agree another government pact after breaking his word on this one.
Such reputational damage would be a big price to pay for calling an election in September, because Martin will not agree to substantive talks until November, a distinction likely to cause bafflement among the electorate. Martin, after all, has agreed to the passage of the Finance and Social Welfare Bills, which usually take up until Christmas.
Varadkar needs a compelling argument to call an election if he intends to do so, and Martin has done his best to deprive him of one.
Against the backdrop of the crucial October summit of the European Council – anticipated to agree an EU-UK withdrawal treaty – there is an extremely weak basis on which to seek a mandate.
“It is difficult to see that call being made,” said a Fine Gael TD close to Varadkar, before adding: “That doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”