If not now, then when? But only Leo knows the route to 60 seats

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with British prime minister Theresa May at the EU-League of Arab States summit in Egypt. Picture: Stefan Rousseau

Some of the most sensitive papers the Taoiseach sees, which few of his colleagues ever do, are Fine Gael’s polling data on a constituency-by-constituency basis.

Shared only parsimoniously, if at all, with those closest to him, it is ironically fully available to the leader of Fianna Fáil. They may have different polling companies, but essentially they are the only two with an up-to-date set of maps and charts.

It is important that we don’t allow big issues distract from smaller ones. Especially on a day of more drama in the House of Commons, when an amendment by MPs Yvette Cooper (Labour) and Oliver Letwin amendment (Conservatives) looks likely to succeed, and have the effect of taking control of the Brexit process from prime minister Theresa May, if she cannot get sufficient support for her deal on March 12.

As Albert Reynolds remarked: “You cross the big hurdles, and when you get to the small ones, you get tripped up.”

Options are narrowing at Westminster. Brexit MPs will be offered Ms May’s deal with possibly a codicil about the backstop, which leaves it intact and the hope of only a short extension of Article 50.

The alternative will be a potentially much longer extension, and the possibility of a second referendum. Mustering a majority for that, however, is harder than it seems because even if Labour supports it, enough Brexit Labour MPs may baulk, to stop it. What those Labour MPs who have already left have achieved is a firestorm of sufficient intensity to force Jeremy Corbyn from his preferred path of inactivity. This was to have resulted in a Tory Brexit, for which he would have borne no responsibility.

However it plays out, it plays well for the Irish Government and Leo Varadkar. It seems he has now definitely delivered the backstop. It is certainly the most significant diplomatic achievement since the Good Friday Agreement, and a riposte to the de facto agreement of partition in 1912.

The most intensely watched issue in Leinster House is whether an extension of Article 50 in Britain results in an election here. There is a gathering body of opinion in Fine Gael for it. There is resentment at dependency on Fianna Fáil, which is not abating. More specifically, there is the fact that last October’s budget was an election budget, and its largesse cannot be repeated.

There are gathering clouds on the horizon, including public-sector pay, not to mention the sinkhole that is Health. It’s unlikely that local elections on May 24 will be a festival day for Fine Gael — and its second European Parliament seat in Ireland South isn’t sure-fire. More fundamentally, if not now, then when? There have already been several junctures when the horses were saddled but the cavalry didn’t charge.

Not to go now, to capitalise on what some see as a commanding lead in the polls, would leave the Government in situ for another budget. This brings risks. It is certainly Micheál Martin’s plan to keep Varadkar in Government Buildings for another year, hoping it is as snug for him as Moscow in winter was for Napoleon. In this view, staying on would be madness, and it’s time for Fine Gael to hold an election in May, or September at the latest. Capitalising on a diplomatic achievement that Fine Gael is deeply invested in makes political sense and the issue appeals to its sense of mission.

Having local, European, and a general election together on May 24 would muster a larger turnout, and maximise the result for the two larger parties. That’s the talk anyway and in the telling, it’s preferred to staying on, having time tarnish what can’t be kept polished indefinitely, and suffering the slings and arrows of events.

In the gusto of this, there is a path to 60 seats for Fine Gael under Varadkar. That’s the number, or close to it, that he needs to be in unassailable command of the next Dáil. But the detail of the data, only he and Martin know fully, may give cause for caution. Varadkar came into office with 50 Fine Gael TDs, but he goes into an election with 48.

The retirement of former ceann comhairle Seán Barrett in Dún Laoghaire and the defection of Peter Fitzpatrick in Louth leave him two down. The party is close to a ceiling in Dublin, and a credible path to 60 has to go through 12 specific constituencies and named candidates.

Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick
Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick

I can’t find it. Even allowing for slippage, and looking at the Munster constituencies where Fine Gael lost seats including Waterford, Kerry, Cork East, Cork South Central, and Cork South West, I still can’t see it. Cork North West is more competitive. Only bad management can again stop a seat gain in Tipperary, but the fact of two Fine Gael candidates complicates matters. So does Fitzpatrick in Louth. And on the tour goes. It’s at best complicated, and far from clear.

Unless you have walked the land, and know where the bog holes and ditches are, you might want to be careful before you charge across it. This is the conundrum for Varadkar. It is not just that he will have to own the decision to call an election, he will have to wear it. For all his sticking his chin out, he has proved to be remarkably cautious, and well he might be. To forgo office on a scale Fine Gael has never previously enjoyed, for an at best uncertain outcome, would be very brave indeed.

As with Charlie Haughey in 1989, those who goaded him into calling what was the last time we had local, European, and a general election on the same day, didn’t all stay around to defend him afterwards. There is nothing so diminishing for a Taoiseach as an unnecessary election that fails in its objective.

I admit I was caught up in the hoopla of a potential election for a few days. More sober sorts tempered my ardour. There is no apparent advantage for Varadkar to stay on in a Government essentially geared to go.

Waiting on events seemingly only offers a downside. But embarking on a campaign that can’t clear the field makes continuing in Government the least-worst position. This is the raiméis of the hurler on the ditch of course. It is still a mystery to me that Fine Gael held hustings and put neither Varadkar nor Simon Coveney to the question on how they intended to deliver a second seat in their own constituency. Where I come from, that’s starting-line stuff.

On the day that’s in it, when the air is full of great matter, think on those confidential files, tracing the outline of bailiwicks lost at the last election, and picture the Taoiseach puzzling if he has sufficient votes for specific candidates in named constituencies. This is the actuality of politics.

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