Remarkable return to government on the cards for Fianna Fáil

Pat Leahy: An election will inevitably follow the UK’s Brexit denouement

Some senior figures in Fine Gael accept privately that Micheál Martin is now ahead of Leo Varadkar in the race to the Taoiseach’s Office.  Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Some senior figures in Fine Gael accept privately that Micheál Martin is now ahead of Leo Varadkar in the race to the Taoiseach’s Office. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Boris Johnson’s outrageous – but, let’s face it, breathtakingly bold – move to suspend parliament for five weeks as Brexit day approaches jolted the political system here out of the gradual, almost serene, winding down of the long summer break.

Suddenly everyone was on the phone. Most Ministers were already back at their desks anyway. The Taoiseach has returned in recent days. The Cabinet meets next Tuesday, the parties’ autumn think-ins take place the following week and the Dáil resumes the week after that. But really, once September begins, politics is back.

The Fianna Fáil leader has an edge in the polls, a strong ground game and the advantage that comes with running against an opponent that has been in office for two terms

There is no escaping the force of gravity that Brexit exerts on Irish politics. Just like before the August break, the coming weeks will be totally dominated by Brexit. September’s Brexitology will run along two principal tracks – watching events at Westminster with a sort of anxious, horrified fascination, and preparing for a no-deal at the end of October.

The latter is likely to see the Government put under increasingly unsubtle pressure from the Opposition, especially Fianna Fáil, on the state of those preparations. Government pronouncements of readiness will be increasingly scrutinised more closely by the media, mindful that the Government also claimed to have been prepared for a no-deal Brexit at the end of March, when it plainly wasn’t.

Arrangements for the Border – as yet a closely guarded secret – will be the top of everyone’s list of questions. We can probably expect some pronouncements, straight from the Taoiseach’s Office, with the Irish and EU flags hanging gravely in the background.

But if Brexit overshadows everything, it’s not the only thing going on. Whatever resolution is reached on Brexit, it will be followed not long after by a general election here. And because politicians are politicians, that fact will never be far from their minds.

All the parties have been stock-taking over the summer, revisiting their election readiness in the light of the local elections in May. Tickets are being tweaked, plans revised, messages reviewed. So what’s the state of play?

Some senior figures in Fine Gael accept privately that Micheál Martin is now ahead of Leo Varadkar in the race to the Taoiseach’s Office. The Fianna Fáil leader has a pretty consistent edge in the polls, a strong ground game and the advantage that comes with running against an opponent that has been in office for two terms – though whether Martin, first made a minister in 1997 and present during all the disasters of the late Bertian and Cowen eras, can effectively present himself as the candidate of change is another matter.

True, he has performed a miracle in reviving his party but to pull off a “change we can believe in” campaign would be some achievement. He can rest assured that Fine Gael will take every opportunity to remind voters of his long record of public service.

The second part of Martin’s current edge in the race, Fine Gaelers accept, lies in his superior ability to pull in votes for Taoiseach in the post-election Dáil. The Fianna Fáil leader has been assiduously cultivating Labour, the Greens and Independents over the past year with precisely this view in mind, while the Taoiseach has been needlessly alienating them – though Dáil observers noticed Varadkar suddenly starting trying to be nice to them after the local elections.

So on these two fronts, the advantage currently lies with Fianna Fáil, which is now seriously in the hunt for a remarkable return to government less than a decade after it was turfed out and barred from the premises.

Varadkar needs a Brexit boost, Government insiders admit, so an election called after a no-deal is averted is attractive to him 

However, there are two very important elements of the next election missing from these summaries. The first is context, and the second is the campaign. Both will have a massive – and probably decisive – bearing on the outcome of the next election.

The context of the next election will be decided in the first instance by whatever the resolution of Brexit, and thereafter by the trigger for the vote. Varadkar needs a Brexit boost, Government insiders admit, so an election called after a no-deal is averted is attractive to him – especially if he can plausibly claim to have managed the process to achieve that outcome. In that respect, if Johnson seeks a realistic and deliverable compromise on the backstop, there is a powerful incentive for Varadkar to swerve and reach a new deal. He certainly can’t claim to have managed Brexit successfully if there’s a no-deal.

All campaigns are hard to predict and rarely go along expected lines, just as no military strategy (as they say) survives first contact with the enemy. But it will be a fascinating contest between Martin and Varadkar, with a wide range of potential outcomes. Martin is a wily and experienced campaigner; Varadkar’s campaign could go badly wrong for him – but it could go spectacularly right too.

None of this, of course, will be visible until Brexit is settled. But after the events of this week, that process – the determination of the shape of the United Kingdom’s exit – has been accelerated. The reckoning approaches swiftly.

Johnson is pushing for a general election and the proroguing of parliament is an effort to goad his opponents into it. Before he can do anything – deal or no deal – Johnson needs to change the numbers in parliament or he will be destroyed by the lack of a majority just as his wretched predecessor was. That view is shared by a number of people near the top of Government here.

Their expectation that he may get his way is only fuelling the necessity to prepare for the election that will inevitably follow the UK’s Brexit denouement. Politics always happens simultaneously visibly and invisibly. That those election preparations are largely subterranean does not dilute their urgency.

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