Pat Leahy: The Government is flat out of energy, mission and purpose
Battlelines for a forthcoming election are being drawn, and not before time
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. ‘If there is to be a political salvation for Varadkar, he will need a new departure, a new project, a new narrative for the Government.’ Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The no-confidence motion in Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy, that narrowly failed in the Dáil on Tuesday night, shook the Government. Ministers were by confronted by the reality that Leo Varadkar’s administration will probably not withstand another such challenge.
Something changed; you could feel it around Leinster House. The complacent, fuzzy expectation that everyone could trundle on until next summer and then have a general election amid sunshine and long evenings was mangled in the shredder of political reality.
Another motion of no confidence – this time in Simon Harris – is widely anticipated in February. That will probably take place after a Boris Johnson-led British government finally supervises the UK’s departure from the European Union at the end of January – a historic event which the Government hopes will focus attention on its mostly far-sighted and measured performance on the Brexit issue.
It will. But not for long. The Brexit event will also signal the end of Micheál Martin’s self-declared obligations to Varadkar. As such, the Taoiseach is thereafter at the mercy of the Fianna Fáil leader when it comes to the continuation of his administration.
And not just him. There is now a very real question as to whether the Government can command a Dáil majority – even if Fianna Fáil continues to abstain. The three essential Independents on Tuesday were Michael Lowry, Noel Grealish and Denis Naughten; each has reason to be sour at Fine Gael, none is guaranteed to continue their support. And each knows that voting for this Government is an increasingly unpopular stance.
With exquisite timing the independently-minded Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness told the Dáil on Thursday that he would vote against any future confidence motion. You do the math, as the Americans say: the Government had a majority of three on Tuesday night with Fianna Fáil abstaining. Then (minutes later, it seems) Fine Gael’s Dara Murphy resigned. Independent Donegal TD Thomas Pringle was absent and won’t be next time. That’s a majority of one. If McGuinness carries through on his threat, it’s a majority of, er, zero. The mood in Leinster House was pretty clear: judgment cometh, and soon.
If developments signalled that this Dáil is nearing its end, it’s not before time. If confidence and supply gave the country a stable government when it needed one (while also serving Martin’s great project of rehabilitating Fianna Fáil), and sustained it during the national peril of Brexit, lately it has curdled into a sullen lethargy, punctuated by three-way political rows frequently as spiteful as they are castrated of real potency.
If this Dáil was ever interested in constructively wielding the power that the Government’s minority status gave it, it no longer is: the debate on Tuesday was dire, even by the standards of such things.
There was hardly a single constructive idea floated by the Opposition beyond “build more social housing”, a slogan, not a policy. For its part, the Government couldn’t admit that its housing policy is clearly insufficient for the task. Its response was twofold: 1) our plan is working; 2) and if it’s not working, it’s not our fault. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to run these arguments simultaneously.
If there is to be a political salvation for Varadkar, he will need a new departure
Really, it was dreadful stuff. Readers who are having too much fun this weekend and are seeking to reduce their dopamine levels can read it on the Oireachtas.ie website; otherwise, here’s a taste.
Deputy Shane Cassells (Fianna Fáil TD for Meath West): “The nonsense coming from the left here tonight is a Wendy house solution that would have us in an even worse scenario.”
Deputy Mick Barry (Solidarity-People Before Profit TD for Cork North Central): “You are a spoofer.”
Cassells: “The choice for the people of Ireland will come soon. The people of Ireland can make the choice to give their children a better future, where the basic principle of having a home is not a fairy tale like the spoofers to my right, but an attainable reality because one party has always ensured that there were houses for our citizens and that party was Fianna Fáil.”
Mick Barry: “Spoofer.”
An Leas-Ceann Comhairle: “I remind members, including Deputy Cassells, to use parliamentary language.”
Cassells: “The Leas-Cheann Comhairle should remind the Shinners of that.”
And so on.
Some people in Government are surprisingly sanguine about housing as a political issue. Just as they are about health. Whatever about Opposition hyperventilating, they believe, most voters know that houses can’t be built overnight and they also know – because they see them – that housebuilding is accelerating. Lurking behind this is the unspoken appreciation that increases in house prices are not viewed by many voters as an unalloyed evil, shall we say. More people (70-ish per cent) own their own homes than don’t, after all. That figure is likely to be even higher among Fine Gael voters.
This level-headedness may serve Fine Gael well in next year’s election. But it misses the potential for election debates to be framed around personal stories of the failure of public services. Big trends are important, of course. The economic news is robust and consumer confidence (an obsession with Varadkar) may catch up with it after Brexit. But people relate to personal stories as a way of understanding the world.
The whiff of complacency around the Cabinet also rather ignores one of the obvious facts around this administration – it is flat out of energy, purpose and mission.
If there is to be a political salvation for Varadkar, he will need a new departure, a new project, a new narrative for the Government. Economy done. Brexit done. Public services next, starting with housing and health. But there is no sense that anything of the sort is contemplated.