Delayed Brexit could help Government prepare for election

Evidence of economic competence required if Fine Gael is to recover losses in opinion polls

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s poll numbers, formerly stellar, are now of a more terrestrial hue. Photograph: François Lenoir/Reuters

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s poll numbers, formerly stellar, are now of a more terrestrial hue. Photograph: François Lenoir/Reuters

 

There is little hope in Dublin, Brussels or London of a Brexit breakthrough this weekend in time for the votes in the House of Commons next week.

Some quarters express the view that there is a secretly-agreed, pre-cooked deal ready to be sprung tomorrow or Monday which can then command a Commons majority on Tuesday. All you can say to that is if Downing Street and the European Commission have together agreed such a cunning plan, then it is novel departure indeed. So far in the current process, at every juncture, they have done the exact opposite.

If established form is maintained then the withdrawal agreement – minus backstop tweaking – will not pass the Commons. That means that the question of an extension to article 50, keeping the UK in the European Union after March 29th to enable further negotiations, will become central in the coming weeks before the planned Brexit Day. Two options are being discussed: a short extension (to the end of June) or a longer one, to the end of the year or even until the end of 2020.

Varadkar’s tenure as a political phenomenon was somewhat short-lived, though he may be the better for it in the longer term

If it’s a short extension (mostly likely, I think) that means no general election in Ireland until the autumn at the earliest. If there is a long extension, then I think an election is likely here before the summer.

Governmental weakness

Chatter about an election suffuses practically every political conversation in the two big parties right now. It was everywhere at the Fianna Fáil ardfheis a fortnight ago. See how criticism of Fianna Fáil makes its way into every Leo Varadkar speech nowadays. The Dáil creaks its way through business arthritically and often pointlessly. Senior officials privately despair of the weakness of a government that lacks the parliamentary strength and political purpose to impose its will.

In two buildings on parallel streets a stone’s throw from Leinster House – Fine Gael headquarters on Upper Mount Street and Fianna Fáil headquarters on Lower Mount Street – preparations are well under way for a possible election on May 24th, the same day as the local and European elections, as well as a proposed referendum on the liberalisation of divorce. Super Friday, one Government insider calls it.

But this week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll warns Fine Gael that it might not be quite as super as Varadkar’s fanboys once expected.

Varadkar’s tenure as a political phenomenon was somewhat short-lived, though he may be the better for it in the longer term.

'The Dublin Ministers and the backbenchers are itching for an election,' one Minister tells me. 'It’s different in rural Ireland. Fianna Fáil are mobilising'

His Icarian interlude began late and ended early. The sky-high approval ratings did not kick in immediately after he became Taoiseach in June of 2017, but rather after the backstop – that’s the “bulletproof backstop”; you may recall it – was agreed in principle in December of that year. A month later, Varadkar was topping the sort of popularity numbers that would have made Bertie Ahern blush, and with Fine Gael in the mid-30s, was on course to lead the next government.

At the same time, afeared Fianna Fáil TDs were reporting that all they were hearing on the doorsteps was Varadkar this, Varadkar that. Partly in response, Micheál Martin thought: slowly, slowly, catchee monkey. Brexit afforded him the opportunity to extend the deal and prolong the process of normalising Varadkar as a politician.

That plan is certainly on course and Fianna Fáilers have a confidence now they did not have last year. The wily-type Fine Gaeler can smell that, too. “The Dublin Ministers and the backbenchers are itching for an election,” one Minister tells me. “It’s different in rural Ireland. Fianna Fáil are mobilising.”

The next general election will be won, as they all are, by the politicians with the most compelling vision of the future and the credibility to deliver it

This week’s poll has brought Fine Gael expectations back to earth. Varadkar’s numbers are now of a more terrestrial hue; Fine Gael knows it will have a helluva scrap on its hands once the election is called.

But no harm, really. The curiosity of voters about Varadkar was enough to get their attention – but no more than that. Novelty, celebrity, socks and so on – these things are useful to get voters to tune in and listen to a politician’s message. But they are not a message in themselves, at least not an election-winning one.

Bread-and-butter issues

The next general election will be won, as they all are, by the politicians with the most compelling vision of the future and the credibility to deliver it.

The bread-and-butter issues – health, housing, the economy, public services, the cost of living – these are what will remain standing as the political touchstones when the fog of Brexit clears.

For Varadkar and his Ministers, these are the issues that require hard work, tough choices and smart politics. Some of them – such as housing – also require time. Hardest of all is maintaining fiscal discipline, and especially control of spending. The ability of an administration to discipline itself is one of the primary challenges of good government.

The Government is now under constant pressure on pay, with the huge public-sector union Forsa this week serving notice that it would be seeking to follow the nurses in squeezing pay increases out of the Government.

Meanwhile, if every other year is anything to go by, pressures in health spending will soon reappear. A report by the Oireachtas Budget Scrutiny Committee – which quietly goes about important work, something other committees could learn from – this week warned about expenditure controls in the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive, where overspends of hundreds of millions of euro have been the norm in recent years. In response, the department explained that expenditure management “is not an exact science”. That’s the understatement of the year.

These are things that the Government must demonstrate it has a handle on before an election if it is to credibly claim economic competence. A longer wait might actually help.

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