It goes against all Irish political instinct — reining in the lolly when there is a general election coming down the tracks.
It was certainly a challenge for Paschal Donohoe, the finance minister, as he faced the difficult task of drawing up a spending plan for the country for the next year with so many different asks.
He had to attempt to combine a number of political and financial realities. These ranged from being ready for a no-deal Brexit, Fine Gael regaining its reputation for minding our money better than it has been, and making more people want to vote for Fine Gael in the forthcoming general election. It was quite the circle to square.
This fourth annual offering from the Fine Gael Government, along with the support of the Independent Alliance, was, in the end, a budget melange, practically all aspects known in advance.
The detail had been spread around like confetti so the delivery simply felt flat in the end. We are conditioned to expect the unexpected, but this time it didn’t happen.
No matter how much we were forewarned, it was still a lot to take on board that we were presented with a budget that did not contain packages on personal taxation or social welfare. No increase for pensioners! Could we ever have imagined it?
On the tax front, there were two individual moves involving higher tax credits for the self employed and lower Universal Social Charge changes for medical card holders. But no more.
On social welfare, there was a small increase in qualified child payments, a €5 increase in the living alone allowance, and changes to the one parent family and the working family payment. Everyone on social welfare will get the 100% Christmas bonus.
Whatever happens with Brexit, we may look back on Budget 2020 and see it was a necessary evil in terms of our tendency — a historic one with which we have always struggled — to spend money as soon as it comes in. It’s always been a case of “make us pure, but just not yet”.
However much virtue was shown by the Government yesterday, the fact remains that we should have been running budget surpluses in previous years, that would have put us in a far better place ahead of Brexit than we currently stand.
But Fine Gael weren’t the only ones wearing the budgetary equivalent of purity rings.
Fianna Fáil was little short of patting itself down with a white handkerchief in self recognition at its own self sacrificing; clearly hoping the electorate will fully appreciate this fact when it comes to voting on the make up of the next Dáil.
Spokesman on Public Enterprise and Reform, Barry Cowen, gave a lively response in the Dáil to the budget. He said this was a time for cool heads and unity of purpose, given what he dubbed the “Brexit psychodrama”. The budget had to be viewed in this light.
Fianna Fáil has facilitated the Government to ensure Ireland has had a stable, coherent voice at the EU table. The alternative would be uncertainty, discord and division,” he said. The opportunity to take a dig at Fine Gael for not being better prepared was not passed up.
Abstaining on this budget is an act of national necessity, he explained, but is not an endorsement of the years of Fine Gael mismanagement.
“Facing into a national emergency we must put the country first... Our decision to abstain on today’s budget reflects that commitment to stability in the face of such grave uncertainty.
Doubling down on their core message as the party which ensures we get the best out of our public services, Fianna Fáil sought the credit yesterday for an extra 1m homehelp support hours, 400 additional teaching posts to support those with special educational needs, the hiring of more than 1,000 more special needs assistants, and 700 additional gardaí — all of which add up to a considerable increase in public service numbers.
Fine Gael is hoping for three in a row when it comes to the next election, a really big ask for a party that has been in government almost nine years. The party’s central message is that this budget is to protect us from the worst of a no-deal Brexit, protect the environment, deliver balanced regional development, and make life a little easier for families.
Making his pitch to get elected as party leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made personal tax changes a cornerstone of his campaign — those people who get up early in the morning.
Now facing into his first general election he has given his imprimatur to a budget that was remarkable for its lack of change in this area. For sure it is the correct and responsible approach right now.
But it remains to be seen how his approach of reminding people that he would like to have made tax changes, but clearly felt unable to do so because of Brexit, goes down. Is he hitting home as the head of a responsible government party, or simply bringing it to the forefront of people’s minds that he has failed to follow up on his promises?
Just after he stood up in the Dáil yesterday, Mr Donohoe spoke of “good government and responsible politics”.
“Our responsible management of the public finances means that we will meet the challenge of a no-deal Brexit from a positon of strength,” the minister told us.
Given the tumultuous developments on the Brexit front much further afield than Leinster House, we are going to need as much of that strength as we can get.