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Stephen Collins: Gloves come off between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil

Varadkar and Martin clearly dislike each other and their duel is likely to decide next election

The budget may have passed with the minimum of fuss but there is no disguising a souring in the political atmosphere between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil since Leo Varadkar succeeded Enda Kenny as Taoiseach back in June.

The Dáil exchanges between the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin over the past few weeks have not just been testy they have, at times, bordered on the hostile.

Relations between the Taoiseach of the day and the leader of the Opposition are inevitably fraught but Varadkar and Martin clearly don’t like each other. It may be simply because they know that the next election will be a do or die battle to establish which of them becomes Taoiseach but at times it seems to go deeper than that.

Martin has done a remarkable job in bringing his party back from the near-death experience of 2011 but if it doesn’t achieve power next time out his time will be up.

For Varadkar too the stakes are very high. In spite of his youth and relative inexperience he was entrusted with the leadership by his peers mainly because he is regarded by them as easily the best media performer in the parliamentary party.

The clear calculation was that he was the best person to lead them in the next general election campaign and maximise the number of Fine Gael seats, but if that proves to be wrong then he too could face an immediate threat to his leadership. At the very least he will have to knuckle down to the worst job in Irish politics: leader of the opposition.

When launching his leadership bid back in May, Varadkar attempted to appeal to his Fine Gael base by saying that he would defend the interests of those who get up early in the morning.

Irish Tory

Martin has seized on this as showing that Varadkar is an Irish Tory seeking to divide Irish society into the haves and have nots. “Only an out-of-touch elite could have come up with the idea of trying to divide society into those who get up early in the morning and everybody else,” the Fianna Fáil leader told his party’s ardfheis last weekend.

He singled out Fine Gael’s focus on raising the point at which workers enter the higher rate of income tax as reflecting a refusal to spend money on improving public services.

Martin’s desire to portray his opponents as a right-wing party concerned only with the interest of the better off in contrast to Fianna Fáil’s commitment to fairness is an obvious political ploy. The question is will it work?

That approach certainly paid dividends in the 2016 election when the Fianna Fáil emphasis on “fairness” struck a chord with the electorate and helped the party to a better than expected performance.

It is an open secret that Martin is hoping Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party will have enough seats to form the basis of the next government and the party’s emphasis is designed to reinforce that prospect if the numbers add up.

Political parties are always tempted to fight an election on the basis of what worked the last time, but times move on and it rarely works. Varadkar is a more nimble debater than his predecessor Kenny and he has been given plenty of notice of the Fianna Fáil strategy.

Budgets

In any case the differences between the two big parties on the economy are ones of emphasis rather than principle. Otherwise how could Fianna Fáil have allowed the Fine Gael-led Government implement two budgets in a row?

Their arguments over the recent budget never amounted to a whole lot with Fianna Fáil putting the focus on a reduction in the Universal Social Charge and Fine Gael on widening the lower tax band. In the event the moves on both were relatively small but honour was satisfied and there was never a sign that the Government might fall on the budget.

Still the differences of emphasis could prove crucial in winning or losing voters. Varadkar has clearly targeted an appeal to middle-income earners as the basis for the next election campaign and his message could have resonance as the “right-wing Tory” tag doesn’t stick.

Martin’s appeal to fairness certainly strikes a chord with the Fianna Fáil base, which tends to be older and more rural, but the danger in his approach is that he could take for granted the bulk of the PAYE earners whose taxes keep the State and all its services afloat.

The recent Ipsos MRBI/Irish Times opinion poll showed that Varadkar has got off to a good start with the public and it appears the attempts to pigeon-hole him as elitist and out-of-touch have had little impact.

With Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil running neck-and-neck in the polls for the past year everything is going to come down to which party can build momentum when the next election comes around. The duel between Martin and Varadkar is likely to be the decisive factor.