Cliff Taylor: Maybe you should have gone in November, Mr Kenny

Even if economic dangers were there before, they are clearer now than a few months ago


Last August I spoke to someone in the political system who put the case – from the point of view of the Government parties – for calling a November general election. The budget would be just over. The Government would have a reasonable chance of controlling the agenda. And it ruled out the prospect of surprises – those events that inevitably come out of the blue – or a change in the economic backdrop.

Looking back, he may well have been right, though of course we won’t know for sure until the votes are counted – and even then we will never know what would have happened had the voters gone to the polls in November.

But with predictable emergency department problems and a housing crisis – and the unexpected intervention of a serious outbreak of gangland crime – Fine Gael has yet to get any traction with its “keep the recovery going” mantra, and Labour’s support is still struggling to break through the crucial 10 per cent level.

But there is something else, too, and it is one of the reasons why the campaign seems so flat. The parties have all had their plans prepared since the autumn. But the world has changed. We are hearing November election speeches being delivered in February. Nobody has been addressing the changed world economic backdrop, or the nerves that sent markets crashing. It’s not in the script. So they all just plough on, unveiling a series of election promises which may or may not be affordable, trying to mix stability with a steady trickle of goodies.

If you were constructing an election campaign now, would you not play up the safety and stability and play down the giveaways? Interesting to see Minister for Finance Michael Noonan referring this weekend to economic nerves affecting Portugal, as Fine Gael finally plays the “safety” card.

Of course it is reasonable for the parties to outline their priorities in terms of tax and spending and how they believe the cake should be divided in future budgets. But voters may first want reassurance that the cake is going to be there in the first place, or at least that we will run no risk of heading back into a situation where money is again being taken out of their pay packets and services are being cut.

The economy is remarkably strong now. The Coalition deserves credit for this, as does the Fianna Fáil administration before it. You can argue about how the spending cuts and taxes were imposed, but you can’t argue that a big adjustment was needed, or that the bounceback has not been surprisingly robust. But the backdrop against which the election is being fought has changed, highlighting the futility of firm “promises” of something that is going to happen in three or four years’ time.

They can’t help themselves


Late last year this might have seemed more convincing. But now it just doesn’t chime with what is going on in the world. Forecasts of uninterrupted economic progress always looked daft, but concerns about world growth underline this.

We are performing well and there is a real chance to continue undoing some of the terrible economic and social damage of the bust. But there are dangers, too, and even if they were there before, they are a lot clearer now than a few months ago. Look at what is happening in Portugal, where a shaky post-election government and fears about economic performance have sent the cost of long-term borrowing for that country to more than 4 per cent.

We may congratulate ourselves for raising long-term funding at less than 1 per cent his week – and it was a good result – but we also have to remember that dealers are buying our debt with the certain knowledge they can flog it on to the ECB in a few weeks’ time. We are rated well by the markets , but some day this ECB safety net will be no more.

Deficiencies in public investment

Towards the end of last year and even early this year Fine Gael seemed to have some wind behind it in the polls. The party’s latest ratings are mixed. Labour’s performance remains uneven. The Coalition will now be worried that we are looking at a rerun of last year, when a poll bounce in March and April – after the spring statement had promised goodies ahead – quickly fizzled out as rows over Irish Water and IBRC flared up. Eaten bread is soon forgotten, it seems. Or will the uncertain economic times push support back to the option of “more of the same” in the last, crucial, few weeks?

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