Parliamentary party think-ins are a strange affair. Nothing much is said, very little is announced, and generally speaking, everyone packs into a hotel for two days of chin-wagging. Crucially it’s all about the mood and expectations among members going into the new political year.
Jovial Labour ministers, TDs, and senators arrived in Whites of Wexford Hotel yesterday afternoon, full of holiday stories and post-summer smiles.
It was a completely contrasting situation to three years ago, when the coalition parties were dreading their first budget for the public and when protests marked party meetings.
This time, optimism is in the air. Unemployment is down to 11.2%, below the European average. Recent exchequer figures are encouraging. And Labour is on the up in the polls.
Ged Nash, the junior jobs minister, was smiling, handing out sweets to journalists. “Jobs for everyone,” he quipped.
But party leader Joan Burton was quick to calm expectations ahead of the budget. Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar has had the sense to already predict that pay packets might only grow by a tenner with any tax changes, if there is a dividend in the Coalition’s tax and spending plans for 2015.
Ms Burton went further. Any payback would be over several budgets, she said during a speech yesterday.
Ministers have flagged that options include altering the level at which people pay the higher tax rate, reducing rates, or reducing the universal social charge.
Other issues lie on the horizon for Labour. The party is in flux. It will take time for new junior and senior ministers to get their feet under their desks.
It also remains unclear what role former senior figures like Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, and Eamon Gilmore will play.
Pending by-elections in Roscommon and Dublin South West will also indicate if the party’s change in leadership has helped reverse the recent fall in support for Labour.
But the biggest focus for Labour is the budget. What scope there is for change will only be known from the third-quarter exchequer figures on October 2.
A higher tax intake and less social welfare spending will give the Coalition more options.
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin was adamant yesterday that any payback for workers would have to be paid for by taxes from elsewhere.
In a key reference to next year’s budget plan, he told reporters it would be “broadly neutral”.
“The very deep initial cuts or taxes that we envisaged that would be necessary for budget 2015 for €2.1bn will not now be necessary,” he said.
“But we’re not in a position to start adding back. There are demographic pressures that have to be addressed, unavoidable extra spend.
“The rule of thumb we’re applying is that where there is additional spend, there have to be additional cuts elsewhere. Or where there is a relaxation of taxation or cut, [there needs to be] addition taxation somewhere else.”
Ms Burton will today speak about building the party for the 2016 general election, after Labour’s bruising local election results in May.
Clearly, the major parties have informally begun testing their election plans. We can expect more promises of change and savings from Labour and Fine Gael for voters in the coming weeks ahead of the budget.
But it remains unclear whether TDs and senators will still have their summer smiles and new-found optimism once the actual tax and spending plans are unveiled.