Local results will dictate timing of general election
Pressure on Government to make unwise budgetary decisions will be unrelenting
In an advertisement in the Mayo News, Minister for Rural and Community Development Michael Ring is depicted driving a truck whose cargo is Fine Gael local election candidates and bags of money.
The consequences of Theresa May’s resignation as British prime minister, and the likelihood of Boris Johnson moving his toothbrush to 10 Downing St, as well as the election results taking shape in count centres all over the country this morning, will colour and shape the context of politics over the coming weeks and months.
But the crucial issues facing the Government – and the stark choices facing its leader – will remain the same as they were yesterday.
First, the future of the Government. Talk of an election has been relentless for months now, driven by the Taoiseach’s heavily leaked preference for one and a strong sense among many people around Government Buildings that this administration, with its rickety Dáil existence and highly tenuous grip on the law- and policy-making process, has run its course. Several senior officials, permanent and temporary, as well as Ministers have made this point in recent weeks, some of them with considerable vehemence.
Last autumn, when Leo Varadkar continued talking privately about the possibility of an election long after it was clear it couldn’t happen, the barrier in the road was Brexit. That barrier is still there, of course. But Mexit and the ensuing Conservative Party leadership contest – last time it was scheduled to take two months, though this could be shortened, according to the British Institute for Government – will effectively pause politics in the UK. Unless an emboldened Johnson comes to the June European Union summit and bangs the table, no significant Brexit business will be done until the autumn. Brexit, in other words, is no longer the roadblock to an election it was last autumn – and will be again next autumn. So it’s now, or it’s next year.
So will he go for it? That probably depends on the results of the elections this weekend. Varadkar and his closest confidants will gather early next week to decide.
The fate of the wretched May, who destroyed her premiership and damaged her country with an ill-timed general election in 2017, is not likely to be far from Varadkar’s mind. And yet there must be an election sooner or later, and at least some of the voices in the Taoiseach’s ear are telling him that while a mad dash to the country in June is certainly not ideal, it might be better than trudging through the snow and the rain next February.
It would be an enormous gamble that could go catastrophically wrong. But it is a more realistic option than many people realise.
The second issue facing the Government (or its successor, should there be an election) is maintaining control over the public finances, with particular pressures emerging over current spending. The exchequer finances are in pretty good health, and the employment numbers released this week show that the economy is going gangbusters. But the forecasts are for moderating rates of growth and let us not forget: we have been here before. Last time, governments built recurring and expensive spending commitments on public-sector pay and numbers, welfare and services on the back of temporary revenues. That’s what made the bust so excruciatingly busty, with millions of people suffering tax hikes, pay cuts and services slashed. A recession will happen: the choices made now will dictate how painful it is.
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe talks a good talk on fiscal prudence but is finding that walking the walk is increasingly difficult. Pressure comes from the muscle of public-sector unions but maybe more acutely from around the Cabinet table.
In an advertisement in this week’s Mayo News, which should be studied as a brief explanation of a certain type of Irish politics, Minister for Rural and Community Development Michael Ring depicts himself driving a truck whose cargo is the Fine Gael local election candidates and – literally – bags of money, the message being that Ring and Fine Gael are delivering bags of money to Mayo. Subtle, it is not.
That this sort of politics may be effective should not distract us from its ruinous long-term effects. But the electoral pay-offs of long-term provision are uncertain, while splashing the cash is often popular with voters. The truth is the pressure on the Government to make unwise budgetary decisions will be unrelenting.
The third issue with which the Government must deal is the most difficult and unpredictable: Brexit.
May’s departure is hardly unexpected. Her general uselessness will not be missed – it’s hard to decide whether she was more inept at the high strategy or the basic tactics of politics – but the unresolved contradictions of the British position will not depart with her. Johnson, or whoever her successor will be, might be in a stronger position to choose, but he or she cannot avoid the downside of whatever choice they make. But Ireland will have to deal with those consequences too.
Candidates for the Conservative leadership will all promise to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with the EU, or leave without a deal. The message from the EU will be: no renegotiation. You can see where this is going.
Britain is losing a prime minister who would not do a no-deal and will gain one who will. The prospect of a soft Brexit is receding as the all-or-nothing option heaves into view: no Brexit or no-deal Brexit. That reality will bring a renewed, fierce focus on the backstop in the autumn.
Preparations for a no-deal Brexit will be greatly intensified: the EU and Ireland will actually have to be ready for a no-deal in October, rather than just pretending to be. And that means that the border questions cannot be fudged for much longer: where will the checks be, and what will be their nature if the Border is a hard trade frontier? For the Government, however it is composed, there are no easy answers to these questions, and no easy options.