As UK flails, Varadkar considers his options

The embattled British prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland arrives in Dublin on Monday morning.

As UK flails, Varadkar considers his options

The embattled British prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland arrives in Dublin on Monday morning.

After a bruising and frustrating week in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson will finally sit down with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Farmleigh to see if there is a way to overcome this pesky backstop issue in time to avoid a crash-out Brexit on October 31.

Of course, they have taken their time to get together. In fact, it will have taken them 46 days to meet face to face, compared to the 12 days it took for Enda Kenny to meet Theresa May in London in July 2016 after she became prime minister.

Relations between Dublin and London are at a low ebb and the pending general election in Britain is the inevitable consequence of a political system and parliament which has ceased to function.

Johnson lost three key votes in 48 hours this week and with that much of the swagger which featured in his early days in office.

His strategy has, in my view,always been to force parliament to block his attempts to force a no-deal Brexit and therefore give him the cover to call an early election.

However, what did not go as expected from his point of view was the decision of 21 Tories, including two former chancellors — Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond — and the grandson of his idol Winston Churchill, to defy him.

The removal of the party whip from so many was farcical and did real harm to the inner cohesiveness of the Tory party.

The second thing to go against him was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to grant him an immediate general election.

On losing the vote on Wednesday night, Johnson immediately tabled a motion seeking an election on Tuesday, October 15, but it failed to get the necessary two-thirds support in the Commons after Labour abstained.

Branded a hypocrite for calling for an early election for more than a year and then refusing it when it was offered, Corbyn and his chaotic cronies said they wanted a guarantee that the legislation preventing a no-deal would clear the House of Lords before they backed an election.

They did so because they do not trust Johnson and said he would have reneged on his word.

Johnson wanted the election on October 15 to allow the winner of that election to stand in Brussels at the critical EU summit on October 17 with a mandate to talk.

Labour said yesterday that no election before October 19 is acceptable, as that is the deadline at which the no-deal legislation cannot be reversed.

Either way, an election is looming and that raises major questions for us here on this side of the Irish Sea.

Do an election and an extension allow sufficient space for an election here? Yes, they certainly do.

But will Varadkar do it? I’m not so sure anymore. And here is why.

Fianna Fáil, under Micheál Martin, has repeatedly said it granted a12-month extension to the confidence and supply deal without pre-condition purely because of the uncertainty caused by Brexit.

Buoyed by a decent local and European campaign, Martin and his Soldiers of Destiny are confident they can overtake Fine Gael in terms of Dáil seats at the next election.

“So confident are some of our guys, they are already beginning to talk about which cabinet portfolio they will get,” said one Fianna Fáil grandee.

Such hubris is perhaps understandable for a party almost decimated in 2011 and frustrated since 2016.

After months of heightened speculation that Varadkar would pull the plug last year and go to the country, he ultimately sat on his hands for fear it would have had a destabilising impact on the Brexit process.

Another interpretation is that, like Gordon Brown before him, he bottled it.

He had a solid eight-ten-point lead on Fianna Fáil in the polls, which meant he was best placed to win more seats, lead the next government, and deliver an unprecedented third consecutive term for Fine Gael.

Now, after a torrid year beset by the resignation of Denis Naughten, major controversies over CervicalCheck, the National Broadband Plan, the National Children’s Hospital, and the Maria Bailey saga, Fine Gael under Varadkar is in retreat. It no longer holds a discernable lead over Fianna Fáil and in fact on several occasions, Fianna Fail have leaped ahead of the Blueshirts.

A number of crucial facts must also be remembered.

It is clear given all the events of this year, Fine Gael’s ability to run the country is serious undermined. Leo is not as popular as he was and many now see Martin as a viable alternative as Taoiseach. (How many would have said that 12 months ago?)

Like all governments in power for eight years, Fine Gael is looking institutionalised, out of touch, and the people are turning on it. As one very senior Fianna Fáil person told me once: “Sometimes in opposition you simply have to sit back and wait for the people to get tired of the other crowd.” That is clearly going on now.

But what also must be remembered is that Varadkar is at least six seats down before any election begins, making his job of trying to stay ahead of Martin all the more challenging.

What do I mean by him being six seats down? Well, at least four senior TDs — former taoiseach Enda Kenny, former finance minister Michael Noonan, former ceann comhairle Seán Barrett, and TD John Deasy — are not standing again and while there is a chance those seats will be held, there is no guarantee.

In particular, the absence of Deasy on the ticket in Waterford in the midst of a long-standing row with senator Paudie Coffey makes that the most vulnerable seat.

A similar argument could be made about Barrett’s seat in Dún Laoghaire on foot of the impact to party support in the wake of the Bailey controversy.

In addition to those seats, Frances Fitzgerald’s departure to Europe means that is another seat to be filled and, with the tide on the way out against Fine Gael, there is doubt whether it could be held either at a by-election or a general election.

Fine Gael has also lost Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick, who resigned from the party over the passage of the 2018 abortion legislation. That seat is a tall order for the party to regain.

So, Varadkar has a lot of work to do just to stand still.

Having lost 26 seats in the 2016 election, one would have thought there is scope for the party to recover but where we are now, it is no longer beyond possibility that Fianna Fáil would return at the next time with more seats.

With all these risks, will Varadkar seek to avoid the four pending by-elections, caused by the departure of TDs to Europe, which he is sure to lose and pull the plug and call an election?

Or will he dig in, cling on for aslong as he can, risk losing all fourby-elections, and hope the tide will come back in?

A year ago, he held all the aces. Now he barely holds any and his caution could now easily see him dumped out on his backside. If that happens, he will only have himself to blame.

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