Pat Leahy: Deep down, Fine Gael knows Government's time is up

State is currently stuck with a zombie Government unable to do anything

Taoiseach  Leo Varadkar. Photograph: AFP/Getty

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: AFP/Getty

 

Were it not for Brexit, we would now be having a general election.

The Taoiseach, hankering after his own mandate and encouraged by a series of buoyant opinion polls, fancies an election, say several of his confidants. But the uncertainty of Brexit stands in his way.

And by the time the forthcoming summits and ratification of a deal (assuming there is one) are out of the way, the election 2018 window will have closed. No government wants a February election (the last two resulted in carnage for the governing parties) so unless Leo Varadkar ignores the Brexit issue – leaving himself open to charges of enormous irresponsibility – there won’t be an election until the late spring of next year at the earliest.

But the forces and facts pushing Varadkar towards an election are still relevant, and they reveal important things about the state of our politics and of the Government at the centre of it.

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe’s steady budget and the relatively low-key reaction to it belied the difficulties in Government that preceded its presentation on Tuesday. The comings and goings over recent weeks between the Independent Alliance and Fine Gael were scratchy and increasingly ill-tempered. They corroded the sense of common purpose that must exist around any Cabinet table if a government is to function effectively. Rows around that table are more frequent now and there is huge frustration among Fine Gael Ministers about what they say was the completely amateurish approach of the Independents to the budget process.

Example: one morning a senior Government figure listened to an Independent Minister on radio pressing the case for one of the alliance’s signature budget ideas: definitely involving grannies, he recalls. He rang the Minister soon afterwards: what was this latest idea? When had it been tabled? The Minister confessed he didn’t really know anything about it.

The briefing against the Independents by Fine Gael has become entertainingly vicious, and it is returned with gusto. The Independents, especially Shane Ross, see efforts to frustrate them everywhere. They’re often right.

Intra-Government relations are terrible. That is not in itself enough to derail a government – but when it is combined with the lack of a common purpose evident at present, it turns the administration into a zombie government: neither dead, not alive; existing, but not doing anything.

This is the private opinion of a number of senior Ministers and officials, including permanent civil servants. Their sanguine view is that they are stuck with it until Brexit is done; but after that there is no reason for the Government to continue, and several good reasons for it not to.

Insiders cite the tightening fiscal environment anticipated next year which will restrict the Government’s ability to solve problems by throwing money at them. The more far-sighted see several such problems in the mid-distance.

The national broadband programme is a car crash, its costs ballooning, its integrity now under open question. This problem will endure after Denis Naughten’s careless dining habits are forgotten. Senior Government figures wonder among themselves if the programme is salvageable. But the political backlash in rural Ireland if it does not go ahead will be gargantuan.

Once Brexit is settled, it’s my sense that the case for election at the decision-making level in Fine Gael will become overwhelming

Cost over-runs in the health sector are now of a magnitude that threatens the stability of the public finances, senior officials fear. Another effort is underway to control spending, with a new body to be granted stronger oversight powers. Perhaps it will succeed where all others have failed. If it does not, the Government will have two options: cut health services mid-year (politically impossible) or increase income taxes in next year’s budget to pay for it (also politically impossible).

Public-sector pay

The pressures on public-sector pay are growing, and with recent deals announced for some nurses, healthcare assistants, workers in publicly-funded charitable (Section 39) organisations and post-2013 recruits to the public sector, it’s no wonder public sector unions reckon the Government is open for the sort of business they like to do. Siptu health workers said last week they wanted to re-open the public-sector pay agreement, which is supposed to run until the end of 2020. Independent Minister of State Finian McGrath immediately signalled his support.

The residential property tax is due to be increased next year. A carbon tax is due. Throw in your usual housing difficulties.

None of these issues present insurmountable difficulties. But they require a government with the will and capacity to take difficult decisions and implement them. Very few people in the current administration believe it has those qualities any longer, if it ever did. And because of that, they are currently making the case to the Taoiseach for an election. And sometimes he is making it to them.

Once Brexit is settled, it’s my sense that the case for election at the decision-making level in Fine Gael will become overwhelming.

Fine Gael fancies itself to be in a good position to fight that election, whenever it comes, rooted in the rise in the country’s economic fortunes under its watch.

It should be cautious. Fine Gael’s record will be contested (in a campaign landscape that affords the opposition a much greater share of the debate) but in any case, it will not be decisive. Elections are not about the past. Even Bertie Ahern, running generally popular governments astride a booming economy, made his re-election campaigns about the future – remember the Fianna Fáil election slogans “A lot done, more to do” (2002); remember “Now, the next steps” (2007)?

Varadkar’s success will depend on his ability to convince people that he can and will deliver a better future for the country. Elections are always about the future. Governments are never re-elected on the basis of their achievements, but on what voters believe they will deliver over the next few years.

With the Government stuck in ill-tempered stasis, creating that narrative for Fine Gael remains very much a work in progress.

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