Daniel McConnell: Timing is everything as spring election looms

With the Dáil set to return later this month for the last session, those hoping for a summer general election might as well forget about it.

Daniel McConnell: Timing is everything as spring election looms

With the Dáil set to return later this month for the last session, those hoping for a summer general election might as well forget about it.

“There is no way this thing will get to April or May,” one minister told me this week.

“It has to be in February as there is simply no way this Dáil can make the summer unless Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil vote confidence in the Government, and that won’t happen.”

Ahead of the last meeting of the Cabinet before Christmas, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told his ministers that the Dáil does not have to be sitting in order for him to call an election, leading some to believe he could call it before TDs are due to return.

According to sources present, Varadkar explored a range of scenarios with them as to when an election can happen, and asked for opinions from those in attendance.

While he gave no firm indication either way at the meeting, it was seen as significant by some that he even broached the subject with them.

Both publicly and privately, Varadkar has, until now, held the line of preferring a May election. But he is said to have been given cause for concern by the manner of the motion of no confidence in Eoghan Murphy that took place in early December.

At the meeting, sources said the Taoiseach pointed out that the Dáil, due back on January 15 -, does not have to be sitting for him to seek a dissolution from President Michael D Higgins.

Varadkar pointed to previous Fianna Fáil taoisigh, such as Bertie Ahern, who called an election when the House was not sitting, most famously in the summer of 2007, when he made an early Sunday morning dash to the Áras to see then-President Mary McAleese.

Having eschewed the option of a November election because of Brexit, Varadkar and Fine Gael were forced to stomach four by-election defeats and the embarrassment of the Verona Murphy episode.

As a result, the party’s ability to regain power is very much in question.

After nine years in office, the strains of incumbency are clear for all to see.

Varadkar, having looked so sure of re-election for so long, now looks certain of nothing with his party structure under strain.

As I have pointed out previously, Fine Gael needs to replace at least nine of the TDs it had elected in 2016 just to stand still.

Not returning are Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan, Frances Fitzgerald, John Deasy, Dara Murphy, Sean Barrett, Maria Bailey, Jim Daly, Peter Fitzpatrick, and Tony McLoughlin.

That is a lot of effort merely to hold what it has and there is no guarantee of anything when the tide is against you.

The Bailey affair in Dun Laoghaire has seriously undermined the party’s chances of winning the two seats it needs to retain power. If Fine Gael does not win two seats here, it will not be in power. End of story.

The party faces a similar situation in Waterford.

Following Deasy’s decision to resign amid the latest war of words with Paudie Coffey, the party’s hopes of two seats have evaporated.

Now that Coffey has himself decided to withdraw from the general election ticket, the party has faces a battle to see one of their remaining candidates — councillors John Cummins and Damien Geoghegan — elected.

It must also be remembered that the party’s current woes come against the backdrop of Fine Gael losing 26 seats in 2016 following a disastrous campaign, particularly in Munster, where the party was ravaged.

Fianna Fáil’s long years in the wilderness, during which Micheál Martin was constantly reminded that he could be the first leader of the party not to become taoiseach, it would seem as if momentum has swung back to them.

Resurgent in Dublin and now neck-and-neck in both poll ratings and Dáil seats, Martin and his team believe they can return with the most seats and therefore win the right to form the next government.

But, as anyone who remembers 2016 will attest, campaigns do matter, and Fine Gael got it so badly wrong.

Having delivered a budget for a November election in 2015, Fine Gael’s plans to cut and run early were dashed by Labour leader Joan Burton.

Joan Burton pictured in 2016
Joan Burton pictured in 2016

“We were constructing a budget on the basis that the election would quickly follow that budget,” said then-finance minister Michael Noonan. “When the then-Tánaiste dug her heels in, that was it.”

So, by the time the election was called in February 2016, Fine Gael were so over-prepared they made an absolute mess of it from the off.

Their election slogan of ‘Keep the Recovery Going’ bombed and rural Ireland vented its fury.

On the other hand, a chastened Fianna Fáil managed to convince enough people that its mistakes of the previous decade were in the past and saw a doubling of its Dáil seats in one go.

Fianna Fáil’s hope in 2020 is that it can jump up again and overtake Fine Gael in terms of seat numbers outright.

As Michael McGrath said in an interview this week: “I think that we have adopted very sensible centre-ground economic policies over the last number of years.

"I think we have led the way in calling for fiscal prudence in the establishment of a rainy-day fund, for example. In calling out the Government on the risks being taken in depending on corporation tax receipts, that could be validated here,” he said.

And what about him?

“I think people know that I am somebody who can be trusted, won’t make any reckless decisions,” he said. “I am someone who understands the public finances and having been in the role that I’m in now since 2011, and having responded to nine budgets, I know the brief inside and out and I am ready for the job.”

But as bad as 2019 was for Fine Gael— consider the disasters of the National Broadband Plan and Children’s Hospital and the Bailey and Murphy sagas — on one front the public seemed to believe in what the party was doing — Brexit.

“Leo, on foot of the Liverpool meeting with Boris Johnson, stands to gain a lot from a deal being done and a hard Brexit being avoided,” a ministerial source told me. “Fine Gael’s return to office will largely depend if we can get a dividend from it and that is why February fits that timescale.”

Should the deal get through London and Europe by the end of January, a three-week campaign could see an election on Friday, February 21 or 28.

Polling throughout the year showed that a strong majority of people backed the Government’s handling of Brexit and Varadkar is hoping the passage of the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons this month will deliver him back to the promised land of Government Buildings.

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