Kenny’s standing has suffered after election climbdown

With the prospect of an open breach with Labour threatening the Coalition’s key message of stability, Kenny backed down

“Enda went to the edge of the precipice but didn’t have the guts to jump” was the conclusion of one  TD

“Enda went to the edge of the precipice but didn’t have the guts to jump” was the conclusion of one TD

 

Labour Party TDs are jubilant after what many of them regard as their best week since taking office. It began with Enda Kenny publicly bowing the knee to Joan Burton over the timing of the election and got even better with the kind of expansionary budget they have been longing for since taking office almost five years ago.

Both episodes may well have negative long-term consequences, but for the moment they have given Labour TDs a degree of hope that they may be able to salvage a decent result when the election comes around in February.

With election frenzy almost out of control a week ago, Kenny brought it to a sudden halt with his declaration on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics last Sunday that he would not be going to the country until next spring.

Just days before, senior Fine Gael Ministers had been talking openly about the desirability of a November election to capitalise on the first real giveaway budget in years before its impact wore off and the inevitable attrition of events in winter took their toll.

Kenny fuelled that speculation with a speech at the Dublin Chamber of Commerce outlining one of Fine Gael’s election manifesto pledges – making work pay. This provoked a furious reaction from Burton, who publicly declared her preference for a spring election and a variety of Labour TDs rowed in to support her.

With the prospect of an open breach with Labour threatening the Coalition’s key message of stability, Kenny backed down, to the surprise of some of his own senior Ministers. While many Fine Gael backbenchers were not nearly as enthusiastic as Cabinet members they were not aware of the scale of the largesse that was being prepared in the budget.

“Enda went to the edge of the precipice but didn’t have the guts to jump” was the conclusion of one disappointed TD.

However, the more widely held view in Fine Gael was that he wasn’t left with much choice in the end as an unseemly squabble with his coalition partner on the timing of the election could have done serious damage to the Coalition’s chances of retaining power.

The mystery is why it got to the stage of a public stand-off between the Taoiseach and Tánaiste. If Kenny and some of his senior Ministers were so convinced of the benefits of a November election why did they not engage in serious discussions with their Labour colleagues on the issue?

The answer is that relations between Kenny and Burton are strained, to put it mildly. They do not have anything like the rapport that existed between the two most senior members of the Government when Eamon Gilmore was Tánaiste.

That may or may not be a good thing from a Labour point of view but it does raise questions about the Coalition’s capacity to provide stable government for a second term with the same two individuals leading their parties.

Chickened out

Gordon Brown

They may not be a very large group at present but they are only waiting to pounce when they sense the time is right.

While his leadership should be secure if he becomes the first Fine Gael leader to win a second successive term, Kenny could face early trouble if the outcome in February is not clear-cut and leads to a period of political instability.

As the euphoria of budget day begins to fade there is also some concern in Fine Gael at the criticism being levelled by respected economists at the manner in which an extra €1.5 billion was stuffed into supplementary estimates at the last minute to shore up extra spending.

When those estimates are taken into account the total budgetary expansion comes to €3 billion and not the €1.5 billion so widely touted in advance.

Taking the total figure into account 75 per cent of the leeway was taken up by extra spending, with 25 per cent going in tax reductions. That is very different from the 50:50 split favoured by Fine Gael.

The Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure say the extra spending does not infringe EU guidelines but economist Seamus Coffey argued in yesterday’s Irish Times that it certainly does not conform to the spirit of the rules.

An equally worrying aspect of the budget is the way in which a substantial proportion of the workforce has now been taken out of the tax net. This hollowing out of the tax base is eerily reminiscent of what happened at the height of the boom.

Pledges

For the moment TDs in both Coalition parties are happy that they have produced a budget with something for everybody. Labour TDs in particular feel that they have delivered for their constituency with the restoration of public service pay rates, tax cuts for the lower paid, an increased minimum wage, improved resources for childcare and extra spending on a wide range of programmes.

All of which prompts the question of why the Coalition is not going to the country as quickly as possible to capitalise on an election budget whose gloss may well look tarnished by February.

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