Fine Gael has launched its economic plan for the next five years which focuses heavily on Brexit and the party’s record of financial stability, but acknowledged that mistakes have been made and lessons learned in the recent past regarding the spiralling budgets of the likes of the National Children’s Hospital.
The Taoiseach, along with business and finance ministers Heather Humphreys and Paschal Donohoe, delivered few surprises regarding what their electoral pitch will be.
The party’s handling of Brexit, the booming economy, and a series of broad attacks on Fianna Fail for the financial crash have been well worn in the past few days, and so it was today, with “boom and bust”, and the need to avoid a return to same, added to the mantra.
Mr Donohoe introduced his party leader reminding the attendant media horde in Dublin that “it’s only half time on Brexit”.
The party have four key pillars as part of their plan, but if anyone was looking for surprises they were short on the ground.
A job for everyone that wants one, which has shades of the much-loved “people who get up early in the morning” parable, investment in infrastructure, a focus on increasing take-home pay, and the prudent management of the economy are the four mainstays of the plan, with Brexit raised at every opportunity at the conference.
Mr Varadkar said that 200,000 jobs will be added to the country by 2025, and reasserted the €11 billion in investment promised over the next five years that emerged yesterday.
“A lot of people are struggling with the cost of living,” said the Taoiseach, adding that the way to fix this is to “put more money in people’s pockets by increasing wages”.
He said he had visited Virginia, Co Cavan, yesterday and had taken on board the complaints he had heard from locals, which included the heightened cost of childcare and issues surrounding insurance costs and VAT bills.
However, those issues were not dealt with in detail. The Taoiseach chose instead to focus on a “need to invest in public services”, echoing the previous day’s refrain from Micheál Martin.
Regarding the economy, Mr Varadkar said he hoped to reduce the public debt to 85% of national income by 2025, and 60% by the end of the decade. He said that it would cost €200 million per annum to implement Sinn Féin’s stated desire to roll back the increase in the State pension age to 68 by the year 2028.
All this played into the pitch of Fine Gael as the party of prudence in order to avoid a return to the “boom and bust” politics of the past, and of Fianna Fail in particular.
“When my party wants to demonstrate that we can be trusted on the economy, we point to our record in Government, not just this one but the last one. I find it very revealing that when Fianna Fail tries to claim it can be trusted it does exactly the same thing - it points to our record and tries to claim credit,” Mr Varadkar said.
Mr Donohoe, asked how the idea of Fine Gael as being a stable hand on the tiller when two enormous State projects in the National Children’s Hospital and the National Broadband Plan have gone wildly over budget, to the tune of billions, replied that he would “absolutely acknowledge that there are things that went on in relation to the costing of that project (the hospital) that I got wrong, and would point to what we have done since then”.
“We’ve revised the public spending code, we’ve changed that fundamentally, so that lessons can be learned of really gigantic projects, so we can identify the difference between the original business case and what happens at the end of the tendering process,” he said.
Mr Varadkar then brought the focus back on Fianna Fail. ”We acknowledge that we got those costings wrong, and we’ve learned the lessons,” he said, but then added that the “only money that was really wasted on the National Children’s Hospital was the €35 million spent by Fianna Fail failing to build a hospital on the Mater site”.
“If they hadn’t made such a mess of it back then we’d have a Children’s Hospital by now, and this is something that we need yesterday,” he added.
“Too many of our communities bear the scars of what happened to them during the crash,” Mr Donohoe said.
“We will keep our finances well managed,” he said, comparing the budget surplus of €1.5 billion achieved last year versus the dire state of the Exchequer when Fianna Fail left power in 2011.
He said that the standard cutoff point for income tax would be increased to €50,000 as “it’s neither fair nor efficient to have someone on an average wage pay a higher rate of income tax”.
Everything came back to Brexit however. “All these targets depend on us getting the right deal,” the Minister said. “We’ve shown our ability to get that deal, and we’ve shown our willingness to take the decisions to keep our country