Varadkar should go to the country after the abortion referendum
Stephen Collins: Waiting for his opponents to pull the election trigger looks too risky
Decision time: whether or not the Taoiseach calls an election in a month’s time could define his entire political career. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Once the abortion referendum is out of the way, in a month’s time, Leo Varadkar will face a decision that has the capacity to define his entire political career. Should he seize the initiative and call an early general election or wait until he is forced into it by events outside his control?
With storm clouds gathering from different points on the political compass there are strong arguments for why the Taoiseach should call a snap election on his own terms rather than allow his opponents to dictate the agenda for the campaign later in the year or early next year.
That is easier said than done, of course, as nobody wants to be blamed by the public for causing an unnecessary election. Calling one would certainly involve a huge political risk, but waiting for his opponents to pull the trigger looks even riskier.
Varadkar will be acutely aware Enda Kenny made a huge mistake by not following his instincts and calling an election in November 2015, at the insistence of his Labour coalition partners. By the time the election was called, in February 2016, the Opposition was fully geared up, and the Fine Gael campaign never got off the ground.
Ideally placedIf the abortion referendum goes as the Government hopes, with a victory for the Yes side on May 25th, Varadkar will be ideally placed to make a dash to the country before the end of June. He will have delivered on his promise on taking over the Taoiseach’s office, less than a year ago, to deal with the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and will be in a credible position to ask the public to back a clear and coherent political programme for the years ahead.
The furore surrounding Minister for Communications Denis Naughten in recent weeks has demonstrated just how fragile the Government’s position really is. When the controversy broke there was immediate speculation Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin would put down a motion of no confidence in the Minister.
In the event the two big Opposition parties backed off, mainly because they did not want to get involved in something that had the potential to bring down the Government in the middle of the referendum campaign. What the controversy showed in stark terms is the Government’s future rests in the hands of its two main rivals. Although Naughten is not a member of Fine Gael it is doubtful if the Government could have limped on if the Dáil had voted no confidence in him.
Having lost tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald in similar circumstances, just before Christmas, it would not have been feasible to allow the Opposition to dictate the departure of another Minister. What the episode has made clear is that the Opposition is just waiting to pounce the next time a Minister is in serious trouble.
Another significant factor is that the internal cohesion of the Government itself is coming under increasing strain and the continued participation of the Independent Alliance becoming more doubtful by the day.
The latest row between Minister for Transport Shane Ross and his Fine Gael Cabinet colleagues, particularly Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, over the appointment of George Birmingham as president of the Court of Appeal illustrates how bad things are. Ross has previously threatened to resign and ultimately backed down, but there have to be questions about how long the farce can continue. His cherished but seriously flawed Judicial Appointments Commission Bill will come back into the Dáil before summer recess, but there is no guarantee it will pass.
Serious aspectThe serious aspect of Ross’s antics is they have the capacity to undermine confidence in the judiciary, not just in the Government. Sooner or later the Taoiseach will have to say enough is enough. In any case the Independent Alliance is itself coming apart at the seams, as evidenced by the row between the Galway East TD Seán Canney and Kevin “Boxer” Moran about which of them should serve as a junior minister. Canney’s public opposition to Ross’s Road Traffic (Amendment) Bill, on drink-driving limits, in the Dáil on Tuesday is evidence the breach is getting worse.
The political threats to the future of the Government come at a time when the budgetary strategy of Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe is being assailed by a range of interest groups. The latest attempt to force his hand on spending next year comes from the public-service trade unions, which are demanding that new staff hired on lower pay scales since 2011 should have their salaries increased to the rates that apply to their longer-established colleagues.
With the confidence-and-supply arrangement due to expire in the autumn Fianna Fáil has already shifted gears and is backing calls for extra spending across a range of Government departments. An early election won’t stop Opposition parties from making all sorts of promises, but it would give Varadkar and Donohoe a chance to bring some realism into the debate about the economic choices facing the country in the years ahead.