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#Elections2019: Taoiseach leaves door open for General Election

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the count centre in the RDS, Dublin, as counting of votes continues in the European Elections. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

“I can't rule it out,” he said.

The final results in the local and European elections were not yet announced and already Leo Varadkar is refusing to say a General Election in the short run is possible.

The Taoiseach earlier opened the door to an election this year saying factors like Brexit and the Budget could take matters out of his hands.

“That's a judgement to be made at a later date. The by-elections have to be held within a six-month period, they have to be held by the end of November.

"But there are other factors at play. Obviously the instability across the water [in Britain] in relation to Brexit and also whether we can get the votes to get a budget through, so that's something that has to be considered in the next couple of weeks,” he said on radio.

Cue considerable head scratching by TDs, party strategists and media alike.

Given the risks with Brexit as well as the mandate needed to pass October's budget, he said there would need to be a decision whether to hold the by-elections or to go to the country.

Several TDs are in the running for potential seats, including Fine Gael's Frances Fitzgerald, Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher as well as Independents Clare Daly and Mick Wallace.

Election count centres are one of the few times where access to the normally elusive elite is relatively easy and handlers and advisors were being sought out for clarity.

What did the Taoiseach mean? Is it happening?

Huddled around phones and computers to rehear the interview, journalists were parsing and analysing every word he said, trying to figure out what it meant.

A senior Fine Gael source texted me to say that the timing of an election will depend on events.

“If it was about the best window for the party we'd have gone this time last year. Will depend on the 4 Bs – Brexit, Broadband, Budget and by-elections.”

In one way it said a lot but in another, it said very little. Was an election on or not?

A short time later, the Taoiseach arrived at a strangely deserted RDS count centre and appeared on RTÉ television.

Seeking to clarify what he meant about the chances of a General Election, presenter Ray Kennedy pressed him on the matter.

The Taoiseach said beyond the “next few days and weeks”, he could not rule out an election, citing the various matters that could cause it.

In a script remarkably similar to the text I received shortly before, Varadkar told the nation that the timing of the election will be driven by many matters, some out of his hands.

Once his TV duties were done, Varadkar faced a media scrum and top of the agenda was the same issue.

“If this had been about what was best for Fine Gael, we would have gone to the country this time last year, when we were at 35%. So it has never been about that, it has been what is best for the country,” he said.

“The results today don't change that. There are other factors at play. Brexit and how that pans out. Rural Ireland and our plans for broadband, getting a budget through and of course there will be by-elections within six months,” he told us.

“All of those things have to be taken into account. But I am also very aware that the ending of this Dail may not be my decision. Fianna Fáil could pull the plug on this Government at any time if they chose to,” he added.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured casting his vote in the European and Local Elections and the Divorce Referendum at Scoil Thomáis, Laurel Lodge, Castleknock this afternoon. Picture Colin Keegan
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured casting his vote in the European and Local Elections and the Divorce Referendum at Scoil Thomáis, Laurel Lodge, Castleknock this afternoon. Picture Colin Keegan

He was asked why he could not commit beyond a few days.

“In the context of the current Dáil and a minority government, where we only have a quarter of the seats, that is just the reality of this. Of course, anyone in government would prefer to be in with a stable majority, but that is the way it is,” he said bluntly.

When pressed further about his own preference, he was equally clear.

“This is all about ensuring we have a functioning government. So as long as the government can function and function well and get our job done and get our agenda through, then there is no need for an election. But if that becomes a problem, then obviously that changes things,” he said.

Taking a step back, of course such talk by a Taoiseach about a General Election looming cannot be ignored, but a cynic would argue he has done so in order to distract from a fairly ordinary day at the ballot box for Fine Gael.

While Varadkar made the claim that Fine Gael has gained in seats at local level, it has failed to retake the mantle of being the largest party from Fianna Fáil.

The claim about the gain in seats, too, must be remembered in the context that Fine Gael lost 105 seats in 2014, so it was starting from a lower base.

Also, it has failed to live up to its own boasts that it would gain 50 seats.

Primarily, Varadkar and his Dublin-centric cabinet have been seeking to woo rural voters in recent months and weeks, with announcements to beat the band complete with money and goodies.

A succession of opinion polls put Fine Gael in the mid-30s in Dublin yet the RTÉ exit poll - which has a margin of error of 3% - had Fine Gael on 15%, just 1% ahead of Fianna Fáil on 14%.

One interpretation is that Dublin voters have fallen out of love with Leo and such a drop in support has sent a stiff breeze up the backs of many a Fine Gael minister and strategist.

Were such a scenario repeated at a General Election, Fine Gael will quickly find itself back on the opposition benches in Leinster House.

Where did it go wrong for them?

For much of the period since Varadkar became Taoiseach in June 2017, Fine Gael has consistently polled up to 10 points higher than Fianna Fáil, and the bedrock of that gap has been the party's strong standing in Dublin.

The party has endured a torrid 2019 so far, with controversies relating to the National Children's Hospital, the National Broadband Plan and Cervical Check badly damaging the Government's credibility.

Also during the campaign, the story about Dun Laoghaire TD Maria Bailey's personal injuries legal action against a hotel has knocked the party even further.

Varadkar himself confirmed that the Bailey saga did have a negative impact on the doors and she is to be brought into the principal's office for a scolding this week.

Ultimately, Varadkar has a big call to make in the coming days.

Does he risk running up to 4 by-elections, possibly lose them all, and continue to cling on?

Or does he, despite a significant slide in his poll ratings and the ongoing Brexit quagmire, forego the by-elections and go to the people for the big one.

Not a gambler, Varadkar will only go if he thinks he can win.

As he cannot be sure of that, the country has now been plunged into an unwelcome period of unnecessary uncertainty.

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