Britain’s difficulty could be Varadkar’s opportunity

Britain’s difficulty could be Varadkar’s opportunity

Opportunity can knock at the strangest of times, writes Elaine Loughlin

The chaotic, incredible, unpredictable, and entirely engrossing scenes playing out in the House of Commons may just provide Leo Varakdar with his opportunity.

A general election in the UK, which will most likely lead to another Brexit extension, would give the Government here a window to go to the country.

Recent opinion polls have shown a continuing slide in Mr Varadkar’s popularity — the Taoiseach has gone from a high of 60% in the approval ratings in January 2018, to 36% in May of this year.

With a Brexit reprieve caused by an election across the Irish Sea and deadline extension granted by Brussels, the Taoiseach could decide to cut and run to the ballot box before his ratings diminish further.

Both Fine Gael, but particularly Fianna Fáil, have stressed the importance of maintaining cool and calm heads here while Britain seems to implode under the Brexit strain. They have talked themselves out of an election to such an extent that they have been snookered by their own words.

But with the UK in election mode, the Taoiseach could easily explain the merits of holding a ballot here, too.

Fine Gael is ready and has been for some time. It has selected candidates and has been quietly fundraising and readying the troops.

Over the summer, Mr Varadkar took to the highways and byways of Ireland posing with Fine Gael election candidates at agricultural shows, traditional-music festivals, road openings, and even the Galway Races. No doubt some of these pictures will be used in Fine Gael’s election literature.

No Government ever comes out of a winter in better shape than they went in, and Fianna Fáil’s preference would still be to leave Fine Gael in power for another season of discontent, dominated by soaring trolley figures, a continuing housing and homelessness crisis, Brexit woes and miserable weather.

The Taoiseach has repeatedly stated his desire to stay in power until the summer of 2020, but this has always been seen as overly ambitious and a bit unrealistic.

Speaking earlier this week, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he still believes that an election should not be held this year.

“I think stability, keeping calm and keeping Ireland focused on issues — and the key one is Brexit — that can threaten people’s livelihoods.

“I think we have been faithful to that and I think I have as leader of the opposition, I am acutely aware of the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the country,” Mr Martin told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke programme.

However, Fianna Fáil is also ready.

Privately, some members would even say they would prefer an election sooner rather than later to end the constant election rumours that have been floating around and have put politicians on edge since they took office

were elected.

Parties and politicians have been anticipating a general election since 2016, when the confidence and supply agreement was first cobbled together.

Many TDs who didn’t expect to get through the first year, never mind three budgets, have been out week after week canvassing and leaflet-dropping.

“What’s most exhausting is being in continuous campaign mode,” said one TD.

After a gruelling year of canvassing and campaigning for the local and European elections, TDs would traditionally turn off the phones and head for the hills or foreign shores to rest for a couple of weeks in the summer.

This year, many remained at home in their constituency offices, conscious that an unopened letter or unresolved query could lose them a vote in the not-too-distant future.

But before in deciding to go to the polls, which is dependent on a situation in the UK that has been shifting faster than the sands of the Sahara, Mr Varakdar will also have to take another factor into account.

European leaders, who are next due to meet in Brussels on October 17, have already signalled a general election as one of the few instances in which they would be willing to give the UK more time to try negotiate an exit deal.

However, many of Mr Varadkar’s EU counterparts have lost almost all patience with the antics of the British, even before Boris Johnson came to power, and would be cautious of giving the UK too much leeway.

A three-month extension has been bandied about by the group of rebel Conservative MPs, and a delaying Brexit until the end of December is the possible date emanating from many remainers the House of Commons this week.

But some in Leinster House are of the view that the EU would have to give a six-month extension to the UK in order to give this country enough time to go to the polls.

With roughly the same results expected here as 2016 — give or take a few seats — an election would mean four weeks of a campaign, followed by potentially many more weeks of negotiations to form a Government.

It could be two if not three months in total before a new Government TDs take up their seats in the Dáil, and newly appointed ministers would ideally be given time to bed in before being faced with another looming Brexit deadline.

Mr Varadkar will undoubtedly be watching events in Westminster more closely tighter than most in the coming days and will be weighing up which side of Christmas he should call an election.

But he should be conscious that there is nothing more expensive than a missed opportunity.

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