The issues for the Government, which is essentially Fine Gael, are Brexit, beef and broadband. In the constituencies where that party must gain seats, beef and broadband are essential. The long phoney war on Brexit is ending. It will be make-or-break for Leo Varadkar.
A slowdown, and perhaps recession, is now in the offing. There is a faint feeling of the water going cold in the bath already. Abroad, Germany is about to slip into recession. The US may follow, and then there is Brexit. Paradoxically, if embraced rigorously, retrenchment could play well for Fine Gael among those who might actually vote for them.
Summers should be good for governments. Sunshine softens the public mood. There is less news, and neither the opposition nor the media have the same opportunity to confront and confound minsters.
The Cabinet ought to return physically refreshed, and enhanced in the opinion polls. It is too soon to know what the polls say, but on several fronts, this hasn’t been a good August for the Government.
The public services card controversy was festering for months, but no effective effort was made to get out ahead of the issue. If you have bad news, you must own it. Those problems should have been outed by the responsible minister, Regina Doherty, as challenges that she, having pointed out, would deal with.
Instead of owning the problem, it now owns her. Her silence since is hard to equate with a politician not known for her shyness. As I write, I have my own public service card in front of me and I am happy to have it.
In an age of social media where people voluntarily give out multiples of the information required for a public service card, use apps and smartphones, not to mention electronic banking, the furore has context.
This is a process issue, and a political one. The process issue is that we are all entitled to be fools about how we share our information. The State, however, is required to have a legal basis for its actions. It appears that it doesn’t for all the purposes the public services card is used for.
That needs to be put to rights. It is a good project. If it’s the basis of a national identity card to access services across the board, all the better. It is essential then, that the underlying legal architecture and accompanying safeguards are put in place.
The political issue on this matter, and others, is one of competence and timing. This is the last summer before an election. From now on, everything from its return in September, to the Budget in October, to signing the contract for the National Broadband Plan, represents a final, irreversible political judgement.
That judgement has been badly off-key over the last few weeks. The importance of correct political judgement cannot be overestimated. From now on, there are no second chances. On third-level education, an essential driver of aspiration which should be a core Fine Gael concern, Education Minister Joe McHugh and his deputy Mary Mitchell O’Connor got it wrong.
The future of third-level was pawned for a worthless promise to cap college registration fees. Regardless, the cat will have to be skinned somehow. The suggestion to look outside the big cities to find more affordable third-level resonated like the crunch of gravel beneath the carriage wheels as it swept down the driveway past the peasants.
And the instruction to “use your grant to pay your rent” told the same peasants to eat cake. Fine Gael is in the market for about between quarter and a third of the electorate. They are all aspirers.
The difference between the 25% and the 33% is people who aren’t born to Fine Gael, don’t belong to Fine Gael, but whose aspirations might be nevertheless be addressed by Fine Gael — if they weren’t being talked down to. Condescension and incompetence are core Fine Gael problems. The wider context is Brexit and the economy.
An economic slowdown hurts. It dents confidence, and should add to the Government’s woes. But when you are losing on one front, it is time to open up another. Brexit is Varadkar’s opportunity to show his mettle politically. An aspect of that is obviously diplomatic and in Brussels, but more importantly, it will be in Dublin on Budget day.
Fine Gael’s reputation for competence is diminished as is its reputation for financial prudence. That part of the population who might vote Fine Gael want their money minded, and not spent — except on themselves. That double standard applies across the board politically. The public services card should be picked back up off the table and played as the innovative reform it should be, in delivering services more efficiently.
The National Broadband Plan is a double-edged sword. It is politically essential in key constituencies, but like the National Children’s Hospital, it’s become a totem of Government inefficiency. But there is no way out on either issue now, except forward.
Leo might want to face down Fianna Fáil and say again the anthem Enda Kenny taught him in 2007: “Sign the contract”. If they don’t want the National Broadband Plan contract signed, they may have an audience on the national airwaves. It will be a different matter on local radio.
On Budget Day, Paschal Donohoe, with Leo Varadkar beside him, has to relight the Fine Gael fire. He has to rebuild his own diminished reputation too. PEOPLE who may vote Fine Gael will want to know one single thing — are the reins held tight in the hands of a minister for finance, who can keep his grip fiscally, and his Taoiseach onside politically? Or will those reins be left loose on the horse’s neck?
Courage and control must be conveyed in spades and be believed to be commensurate with the crisis.
If not, the project that rose from the ashes of Fianna Fáil’s collapse in 2011 will fail. The fact of necessary measures being unpopular is beside the point. The protest vote is never available for Fine Gael. We had a Government of 14 years from 1997–2011. It didn’t end well. The previous tenure of that length, and longer, ended in 1973. In 2020, we will decide if we want to give Fine Gael a 14-year tenure to 2025.
It’s a very high bar. Fianna Fáil almost failed in 2007, but Fine Gael intervened by failing to convince the electorate and so things continued by default. Fianna Fáil has yet to be put to that test.
What is clear is that by any measure of business-as-usual, Fine Gael is felt to be tired and lacking focus. There has been so much explaining, we have forgotten what they are for. It is in the approaching crisis, however, if there is an appetite for it, that their last, but best, hope of victory can be found.