Varadkar’s coalition offer an attempt to wrong foot Martin’s drive for ‘change’

Taoiseach’s ploy might not win Fine Gael a lot of votes, but it could cost Fianna Fáil some

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has ruled out the prospect of a "grand coalition" between his party and Fine Gael. Video: Ronan McGreevy

 

Leo Varadkar raised the question of a grand coalition with Fianna Fáil during Wednesday night’s televised leaders’ debate; Micheál Martin answered it on Thursday: out, out, out.

“The people want a new government, that means a completely new government,” he told reporters.

But the issue will not go away completely. Though it apparently irritates Martin, the question of how a government would be formed after an inconclusive election outcome will become increasingly important as polling day nears.

General elections are, after all, about getting a government for the country. Voters elect TDs; TDs elect the taoiseach.

And government formation is not just a matter of political preference and policy compatibility; it is a numbers game. Dáil numbers will define the limits of what is possible and party leaders will have to live with that.

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Varadkar’s floating of a historic grand coalition between the two old rivals is not the first time this has happened.

After all, Enda Kenny offered Martin a 50:50 share of government after the last election, an offer the Fianna Fáil leader – having explicitly promised he would not do such a deal, and aware of the opposition among his own grassroots to the prospect – felt able to resist.

Interestingly, one of the supporters of the idea at the time was Kenny’s minister for health, one Leo Varadkar. He said that a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition would be a bit like same-sex marriage – it would feel strange at first but people would get used to it.

Varadkar’s decision to refloat the idea now probably has as much – or more, probably – to do with fighting the election than forming a government after it.

Disrupts

By landing the idea into the election debate, it disrupts Fianna Fáil’s efforts to be the party of change. After all, if we end up with a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition, how much different would that be to a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael confidence-and-supply agreement?

And with three-quarters of voters, according to this week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, seeking a change of government, the mantle of change is an especially important one in this election.

During the Virgin Media debate, the promise of “change” was the centrepiece of Martin’s appeal to voters. If change-seeking voters believe that a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael coalition is a likely outcome, they might be less inclined to vote for Martin’s party. So Varadkar’s ploy might not win him a lot of votes; but it could cost Fianna Fáil.

Fine Gael sources acknowledge that it leaves an opening for Mary Lou McDonald to portray Sinn Féin as the real “change” option. But their view is that is more likely to hurt Fianna Fáil than Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil sources dispute this, but unconvincingly.

Either way, the coalitionology question is now out in the open. It is unlikely to go away for the remainder of the campaign.

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