After the tête-a-tête in the Dáil yesterday, the Government’s grip on power is slipping further, writes Political Editor.
They say a week is a long time in politics, but Denis Naughten proved yesterday that an hour can be a long time.
Shocking the Dáil, Naughten’s curt and bombastic resignation speech, which laid the blame for his departure at Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s door, elicited sympathy from his opposition colleagues.
They were demanding answers, but no one was seeking his head at that stage.
His constituency rival, Michael Fitzmaurice, said: “If that is politics, it stinks.”
Independent TD Michael Harty, from Clare, spoke warmly in support of the former minister.
Naughten said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had told him he did not have confidence in him.
He insists there was no political interference by him in the procurement process for the National Broadband Plan contract.
Naughten said Varadkar “had asked me to reflect on my position”.
“It is clear to me, therefore, that the Taoiseach does not have confidence in me.
If I was a cynic, which I’m not, I believe the outcome is more about opinion polls than telecoms poles. It’s more about optics than fibre optics.
Wounded and angry, Naughten left the Dáil chamber as soon as he had concluded his remarks.
Within an hour, it was Varadkar’s turn to give his side of the story.
In less than six minutes, he shredded Naughten’s credibility by revealing the extent of the contact his former minister had with David McCourt, the head of the sole remaining consortium bidding for the national broadband contract.
Varadkar set out a convincing set of interactions whereby Naughten’s story kept changing: Six meetings in total were disclosed, including some private dinners in McCourt’s home.
Varadkar said Naughten told him yesterday morning that “he had at least three other private dinner with Mr McCourt”, of which there was no record.
“He had not informed me of these additional meetings either when we met yesterday or when we spoke last night,” said Varadkar.
He said he has no doubt Naughten’s intentions were honourable, “but he left himself open to allegations of a conflict of interest”.
“Ultimately, as minister, he had a decision-making role. It would have been his responsibility to bring to Cabinet the memo to gain the approval of Government for the awarding of any contract. As a result of this, I asked him to reflect on his position. He asked that he be allowed to explain his position to the Dáil. I have since received his resignation in writing and I have accepted it.”
The gasps of shock were audible but, by the end of the debate, the consensus was that Naughten had no choice to go.
'If I was a cynic, which I am not, I believe the outcome is more about opinion polls that telecom polls. It's more about optics than fibre optics' - Denis Naughten pic.twitter.com/EBBVbZYTLz— RTÉ News (@rtenews) October 11, 2018
The questions now move to who will replace him — with former tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald being tipped for a return to the frontline.
The difficulty is that, based on basic arithmetic, the minority Government can no longer guarantee the passage of legislation by itself, even with Fianna Fáil abstentions.
It needs 57 votes to guarantee a working majority but it now can only rely on 56, with Naughten’s resignation and Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick’s departure last week.
With the Government’s authority and standing starting to creak, the likelihood of a November or December election is becoming a lot more credible, given the palpable escalation of uncertainty around the place.