Tough two weeks ahead for Varadkar as he tackles ‘October trinity’
How the Taoiseach handles the budget, Brexit and Fianna Fáil could determine his future
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: he wants a lengthy extension to the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil or he wants an early election. Fianna Fáil wants to deny him both
The next fortnight will be the most important for Leo Varadkar’s Government since he became Taoiseach. By Saturday two weeks from now he will have passed the budget, engaged with Fianna Fáil on the Government’s future, and he will have a good idea whether a Brexit deal is on. By then the future of his administration – if it has one – will be much clearer.
Take these in reverse order. On Brexit we are now on the cusp of the decisive phase. Next week British negotiators will engage with the European Commission in a series of make-or-break sessions. By the end of the week Michel Barnier will have formed a view – on the basis of the British proposals and how far he can stretch the EU’s “legal order” – whether an agreement on a withdrawal treaty is possible by mid-November or, at a stretch, mid-December.
On Friday, Brussels announced that it was extending the October summit, and leaders would now meet on the Wednesday evening, instead of Thursday, going through until Friday. Decision time. Deal or no deal?
Much of the weighing up of these epochal history-making decisions will be beyond Varadkar’s control. His view will be critical on the backstop (and remember no backstop, no deal) but in the discussion about what concessions the EU can and should make in its rules to accommodate the British requests, his voice will be only one among many. And the reality is that it will be nowhere near as important as those of Merkel and Macron and Juncker.
The Brexit outcome will directly impinge on the second part of the October trinity – the future of the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil.
Talks will commence immediately after the budget. Varadkar has badgered Micheál Martin enough about talks, and Martin has told him “after the budget” often enough to make that clear enough. Fianna Fáil expects the knock on the door – okay, a tweet – on Wednesday morning.
Varadkar wants a lengthy extension to the agreement, or he wants an early election. Fianna Fáil wants to deny him both. Varadkar will seek immediate talks. Martin will likely suggest a process beginning after the outcome of the Brexit talks becomes clear.
Fianna Fáil will probably suggest a review of the current Government. That might take a few weeks. Then they could begin discussing the possibility of an extension. Sure, that might take a few weeks too.
And you couldn’t be in too much of a rush with Brexit and everything, now could you? The objective is to close the door on Varadkar’s option for an election this year.
But when the Lord closes a door, he opens a little window. If the possibility of a Brexit deal is signalled before the summit in 10 days’ time, then Varadkar could come home after the November summit with a Brexit deal agreed (though unratified by the parliaments) and go to the country.
I think he would open himself up to the charge of massive political opportunism at a critical time for the country. But it is an option being kicked around at the highest levels in Government.
“Our fear is Fianna Fáil will trap us,” one Cabinet Minister tells me. “We’ll limp out of confidence and supply for the rest of the year and then Fianna Fáil can call an election in February or March.”
This is viewed as the worst possible time for the Government. “It’s Leo’s to call before Christmas. It’s Micheál’s after Christmas,” says one figure. Once the budget is concluded, this is the central issue in domestic politics.
And so, finally, the budget itself – how do we be sure that the Government will pass it?
Because it always does.
The days of grinding austerity when every budget contained measures which squeezed hard-pressed citizens even harder (remember the €6 billion one? ouch) are over. But even then the budgets were passed, because the only thing worse for the government than passing the budget was not passing it and stumbling headlong into a general election.
Discussions on the budget with Fianna Fáil have progressed, say those involved, with considerably more industry and purpose than the interminable and unfocused discussions with the Ministers of the Independent Alliance, who have been coming up with ideas all week, most of them in other people’s departments. The granny grant. The granny flat grant. The flat granny grant. Buy a granny, get one free.
Paschal Donohoe, says one ministerial colleague, is “ageing in front of us”. As of Friday he had lost his voice, apparently. “They will drive him to drink,” says another insider. This Government is not a happy one at the moment. But the budget will be done.
Spending decisions and economic planning are only one part of a budget: its other role is as a political loud hailer – an opportunity for government to speak to voters about its political priorities, its core messages, its plans for the future, its raison d’etre.
Budget Day is one of the few occasions on the year when ordinary people actually pay attention to what politicians say because they know it affects their daily lives.
But it also shows the character of a government. Tuesday’s budget, with its large increases in public spending, will show how the centre of political gravity has moved leftward in recent years in response to social problems, especially housing. Much as it might have surprised a youthful Varadkar, the Government will move in tune with that public mood.
All political leadership requires an ability to tack and jibe with the prevailing winds. Good leaders stay on course for their destination. Varadkar can expect gusts from the Fianna Fáil leader’s office and from Brussels in the next fortnight. How he negotiates these stormy conditions could well determine his future.