Leo Varadkar has already made his bed for a general election

Fiach Kelly: Taoiseach’s best chance of returning to Government rests on Brexit

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: Brexit may afford him his best hope of returning to Government Buildings. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: Brexit may afford him his best hope of returning to Government Buildings. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

In the weeks after the local and European elections, when the results were still being digested and interpreted, many in Fine Gael waited to see if their party would act on what the voters had said.

Those who had been there in 2014 – when the party lost 100 council seats in the maelstrom of water charges – and believed it failed to heed the lessons of that outing.

Sitting TDs who hoped for a change of strategy or a reset before the summer recess and the August political lull.

Nothing came, aside from a nuts and bolts review of general election tickets.

Leo Varadkar set his face against a Cabinet reshuffle, the obvious way of telling voters your government has changed. The major policy announcement since the local and European elections, the climate action plan, launched in mid-June, had been in development for months.

Fine Gael had a hugely successful European election, winning five seats, but its modest gain of 20 council seats fell short of initial expectations.

As they face into August, what troubles some in Fine Gael is that it may be too late to change course now.

The corresponding statements released from Government Buildings and Downing Street after this week’s phone call between Varadkar and Boris Johnson illustrated the chasm that now exists between London and Dublin on Brexit policy.

Johnson, demanding the backstop be abolished as a precondition to talks, is knowingly asking the impossible. Varadkar insists there can be no Brexit deal without the backstop.

Republic of Opportunity

But in one, narrow area their interests align. They both need Brexit to achieve electoral success.

It is just over two years since Varadkar won the leadership of his party with promises of a Republic of Opportunity and a rolling manifesto to ensure Fine Gael was election-ready at all times, with a swathe of policies to put to the people.

Little is mentioned of either initiative now, nor of the Taoiseach’s promise to reform the taxation system by merging PRSI and the universal social charge. Varadkar’s other tax policy, to raise the threshold at which people pay the higher rate of income tax, is unlikely to be realised anytime soon, given a looming no-deal Brexit.

The Sláintecare plan to reform the health service proceeds slowly. The argument on housing has long been lost, even as the market in Dublin stabilises and supply increases.

As always, the process of government has taken over and restricted the time available for new policy formulation or strategic thinking.

Varadkar’s own public standing has fallen and, similar to predecessor Enda Kenny, he is likely to have to rely on key lieutenants in an election campaign. Whereas Kenny could look to Michael Noonan and Phil Hogan, Varadkar will have to call on Simon Coveney and Paschal Donohoe.

There is no time left for Varadkar to effect major change to Fine Gael policies or positioning in advance of the general election, likely to take place in the first half of 2020.

From September, Brexit will consume all. A chaotic, crash-out Brexit now seems the likeliest scenario, unless the House of Commons can stop Johnson in his tracks.

The best hope for Ireland may lie in the UK, after the national catharsis of actually leaving the EU, agreeing to the backstop or a similar arrangement, such as an all-Ireland agrifood zone, as a precondition for a future trade deal with the EU.

Backstop defence

Donohoe’s budget will be dominated by supports for sectors of the economy at risk from a no-deal Brexit, as well as a carbon tax. The Government will soon have to detail exactly how and where checks will take place to protect the integrity of the single market.

Varadkar’s defence of the backstop will be the dominant theme of politics between now and the general election, and Fine Gael will hope that it reaps electoral dividends.

It is likely to be more complex than that. Voters will be able to separate support for Brexit policy from concerns about domestic policy, but the Taoiseach has other advantages, if he uses them wisely.

He still has the platform of government to project himself and his Ministers.

The economy is poised at a politically advantageous point where it is performing strongly but with a shadow of uncertainty – through Brexit or overheating – lingering in the background to persuade voters not to take a risk. Fianna Fáil, despite strategic gains in the local elections, is not streaking ahead of Fine Gael, even it has established a lead in a series of recent opinion polls.

The Taoiseach will be pilloried in the Brexit-supporting UK press and by hardliners in the Tory party as he defends Irish interests, a gift to a leader whose domestic popularity is on the wane. And in Johnson, a right-wing Tory, he could not have wished for a better opponent.

Earlier this year, Varadkar said that while Brexit had defined the UK, it would not define Ireland. The Taoiseach’s best hope of returning to Government Buildings is that it defines him.

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