Fine Gael portray themselves as being above the grubby political behaviour of the Fianna Fáil upstarts. Over the years, though, when something happened, like a dreadful general election performance, Fine Gael would look across the Dáil chamber and wonder at their own inability to be ruthless when the occasion called for it.
Now, that political ground is shifting. Leo has abandoned the niceties, and is bullying Fianna Fáil in the playground. Might we go so far as to describe it as political emotional abuse?
He has just flung the door open to the possibility of a general election, to seek his own mandate from the Irish public, over a year after he took over the job of Taoiseach from Enda Kenny.
As a result, his own party is a secret mixture of thrilled and scared. No-one knows the right time for a general election. How much blame will Fine Gael attract for calling one? They see that Leo is very popular. They recognise that this could be the best chance. They see the response he gets around the country.
It’s not just Fine Gael supporters lining up to have selfies taken with him. They loved his speech when Pope Francis was here. It was respectful, but steely; the necessary message was delivered to the pontiff, while proper decorum was observed.
They also see Fianna Fáil in a vulnerable position, slipping in the polls. They see the damage, as yet unquantifiable, mostly Dublin-centred, done to the party by the stance taken on the abortion referendum, which was so out of touch with the result. Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, might have turned in a sterling performance, in calling for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, but the internal divide on the issue highlighted, yet again, how a considerable rump of his parliamentary party team will never be loyal to him.
Meanwhile, the Fine Gaelers know that Leo could have a great election campaign; that he is capable of great things. Equally, though, they worry that he could crash and burn in the white heat of a campaign and come out and say something epically stupid.
They look to when Enda Kenny wanted to call a general election in November of 2015, but was prevailed upon by the then tánaiste, and leader of the Labour Party, Joan Burton, to wait until early in the new year of 2016. How much of a difference this would have made to the overall result is a moot point, but the episode is recent enough to play on the collective FG mind, with regard to timing.
The steps taken by the Taoiseach, in the past week, towards Fianna Fáil, have been highly provocative. The letter from him to Martin arrived by email last Friday afternoon, with no advance warning, and that would not be the norm.
The last contact between the two men had been the highly anticipated July meeting in Killarney, in the aftermath of which it seemed an autumn election was rather unlikely. Both sides issued very similar statements afterwards.
“Leo Varadkar gave his views about the need to review and renew the confidence-and-supply arrangement”.
“Micheál Martin reiterated his view that, as per the confidence-and-supply arrangement, a review is provided for at the end of 2018.”
They agreed to meet again in early September and also to engage on the forthcoming budget. But in what many in Fianna Fáil see as an effort to humiliate them, Leo Varadkar sent this latest letter, setting out his priorities for what should happen once an extension to the confidence-and-supply agreement had been renegotiated up to the summer of 2020. They are bristling at what they view as his arrogance, just as the two parties were due to sit down and discuss the contents of next month’s budget.
Micheal Martin went on the Today with Sean O’Rourke programme on Monday morning and gave a lengthy interview, but refrained from mentioning the letter he had received from Leo Varadkar three days previously. He also said his party would not support a Sinn Féin no-confidence motion in Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy.
The next day, the Taoiseach sent out a series of tweets, revealing the letter he sent looking to reopen negotiations, complete with the Fine Gael wish list for the new deal, which read awfully like the outline of a general-election manifesto.
Unsurprisingly, Micheal Martin’s response came quickly and with a refusal to renegotiate the arrangement now, and a good dig about the state of the health service and the “emergency in housing”. “I don’t see a reasonable basis for the statement in your letter that ‘government cannot function if it does not know if it will last from week to week or month to month’.”
In the midst of all this aggro, the human dynamic of these budget talks between the two parties will be interesting to observe.
Fianna Fáil is represented by the partnership of the cool-headed finance spokesman, Michael McGrath, and the “I bleed Fianna Fáil” Barry Cowen. Remember the aggro between the Offaly TD and the Taoiseach during the original negotiations on the confidence-and-supply agreement? The public expenditure and reform spokesman basically told a parliamentary party meeting that urbane Leo would rather go for wine at the top-end Marker Hotel, in Dublin, than drink pints with the plain people.
Fast forward to the events of recent days, when the Taoiseach throws in the grenade, just as his finance minister, Paschal Donohoe, has to get into a room with Deputies Cowen and McGrath. Who, then, you wonder, gets fingered for the blame, if someone loses the cool during these budget talks and we’re thrown into a general election campaign?
This is all high stakes for Leo Varadkar.
The next election could possibly result in the Taoiseach finding himself back in a very similar situation, in terms of Dáil arithmetic. Does he keep playing it cautiously and be grateful for what he has got? Or does he throw that caution to the wind and engineer an election, counting on a “Leo bounce”, which would make a significant difference to the Dáil numbers? It’s looking like he has reached his conclusion on that; it’s just a matter of when.