The open divisions between the Coalition parties on the budget this week are a signal that the second half of the administration may be very different from the first. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s more assertive presence is in contrast to the consensual and inclusive style favoured by Micheál Martin during the 2020-22 period.
Martin, of course, saw his term as Taoiseach end with an agreed handover of power and a smooth segue into the Tánaiste’s office; Varadkar’s will come to an end in the white heat of a general election campaign in which his party and Martin’s will be direct competitors for votes. So aside altogether from the men’s temperamental and presentational contrasts, things were always going to be different for the concluding act of the Government than they were for the opening phase.
But it’s fair to say that few expected all this to begin so early. We are more than four months away from the budget, and there’s another one to come next year before the general election, expected in late 2024 or early 2025. So if Fine Gael sees the need to define itself politically by means of a public row over budget priorities at this stage, it may be a signal that difficult times are to come.
In his interview in The Irish Times today, the Taoiseach is certainly not resiling from the arguments for tax breaks for middle income workers advanced by his junior Ministers earlier this week; quite the opposite. They represent, he says, what Fine Gael is about and it is the advancement of such policies that form the rationale for the party’s participation in the Coalition. That is certainly a legitimate position to hold; but whether it is in the interests of Government stability and coherence to approach it in this way is doubtful. The reactions of Fianna Fáil and the Greens suggest as much.
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Varadkar is the leader of his party and his members and supporters expect him to champion its causes and policies in office. But he is also the leader of a three-party coalition government with responsibilities to his partners. The most successful coalitions tend to be the ones where the leader goes out of his way to take account of the needs and sensitivities of his partners. This week’s approach could hardly be said to fit that model.
Fine Gael might also be wise to realise that “middle Ireland” – as Varadkar terms it today – is at least as interested in increasing the availability of housing, in improving the health service, in cutting waiting lists and in fixing many of the stuttering public services as it is in tax cuts. Certainly, repeated surveys tend to identify the public’s priorities as housing, health and the cost of living.
Any tax cuts delivered by the Government will no doubt be welcomed by those who benefit. But there is no guarantee that they will be a political panacea for Fine Gael.