Where does Varadkar and Martin’s row leave us?

Pat Leahy: It seems Taoiseach wants the idea of an election to stay bubbling, but why?

Leo Varadkar knew that Micheál Martin wasn’t going to bite on his invitation to early talks on the renewal of the confidence-and-supply agreement. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Leo Varadkar knew that Micheál Martin wasn’t going to bite on his invitation to early talks on the renewal of the confidence-and-supply agreement. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The first two steps of this dance were easily anticipated: the Taoiseach starts the political term with a request for early negotiations on a renewal of the confidence and supply agreement, and the Fianna Fáil leader rebuffs him. The real question: what happens now?

“The Taoiseach is considering the matter,” his spokesman said last night.

You can bet he is. The question of election timing is a sensitive one for Fine Gael. On the last two occasions the party contemplated an election as an incumbent government – in 1997 and 2015 – the results were deeply unsatisfactory.

In 1997, at the prompting of the Labour Party, John Bruton went early, preferring a pre-summer election over the advice of those in the party who advised him to wait until the autumn. Fine Gael lost power to Fianna Fáil and spent three terms in opposition; by the autumn, following allegations of Fianna Fáil involvement in planning corruption, the planning tribunal was established. Had Bruton waited, who knows?

In 2015, Enda Kenny was swayed by Joan Burton who wanted to wait until early 2016 to let budget giveaways settle in. In a grumpy February election, he lost 20 seats. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been different a few months earlier. Many think it might.

Consider

So how and when this Government ends is a matter that the Taoiseach will consider very carefully.

Leo Varadkar knew that Micheál Martin wasn’t going to bite on his invitation to early talks on the renewal of the confidence and supply agreement. But he wanted to put it on the agenda, all the same. The narrative enthusiastically spun by the Government before the summer break – that it needed an extension to confidence and supply in the name of stability during the Brexit talks – doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but Varadkar clearly wanted to refloat it all the same.

“It’s vital that we have a stable government at home,” Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said last night. But who, exactly, is it that is threatening the stability of the Government?

Martin gave Varadkar the same reply as before: we’ll talk, but after the Budget.

So why is Varadkar asking the question when he knows the answer? Fine Gael Ministers differ in their interpretation, and few are in the inner sanctum of Varadkar’s political decision-making. But those who have a reasonable claim to proximity say that Varadkar wants to keep the idea of an election bubbling, to keep the option open. He wants the idea of an election being Fianna Fáil’s choice to be knocking about.

‘Options’

“He’s acclimatising the public to the idea of an election,” says one Minister, a view shared by at least some colleagues. “He wants options.”

That seems the best explanation.

But for now anyway, it’s a phony war. Each side privately acknowledges that no decision will be made on the future of the Government – one way or another – until the medium-term prognosis for Brexit is apparent. The timetable for agreement of a withdrawal agreement is supposedly by the October summit in Brussels, but nobody expects that – instead they say November, or even December, is more likely.

Although the Leinster House rumour mill throbs with talk of a November election, neither side is going to collapse the scrum before the future of Brexit is clear. So what happens now? Most likely answer: nothing much, yet.

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