GERARD HOWLIN: Leo has three big issues and any number of things could go wrong

Leo Varadkar at the Enterprise Ireland/Chamber of Commerce business even at One King West, Toronto, Canada, on Monday.

The prospect of a budget coinciding with a presidential election is alarming for Leo, writes Gerard Howlin

A taoiseach in August is usually a man unwinding from the intensity of office, while cogitating the traps and opportunities ahead. Politics is most intense during the long days and nights of winter. Ours is a Taoiseach who doesn’t do August.

There is the novelty of office, of course. Then there is the fact of not yet having received a personal mandate for the job in a general election. There is the possibility of an election, sooner rather than later, but not necessarily at a time of his choosing. That’s pressure and it is only the start of it.

The list of issues is endless. The number of things that can go wrong is numberless. But some things are clearer and the shape of the metanarrative is emerging. If this is an administration that is governing in months, it is talking in years, and that makes sense. When you have little time and less money, but must inculcate hope, regardless, it’s best to point to the horizon.

If the situation is complex, the Fine Gael plan is simple. It is to maintain its lead over Fianna Fáil, expand it, and be the only basis for any government. This requires Fine Gael to do better, and Fianna Fáil to persist in its far from unanimous refusal to countenance Sinn Féin.

Fine Gael has 50 seats out of 158 and will go into an election with, effectively, 49 out of the 160 in the next Dáil. Its third seat in Dún Laoghaire is surely gone. Of those 50 now, 30 are in Leinster. This was once Fianna Fáil heartland, the proving ground of ‘breakfast roll man’.

He is typically self-employed, a small contractor, or working for one. He is on the road again.

The length of Leinster, once small towns now have vast housing estates appended. These are people putting down deep roots in new communities, with social infrastructure that is often volunteer-led, because parents naturally get involved in their children’s activities.

But these people are also mobile, because work and home are not in the same community. Work is something you travel for, and which you expect to change several times in a lifetime.

There is a significant immigrant presence. The Pale is new Ireland. Rolling fields abound, but agriculture is no longer dominant. It’s urban, but it’s the town, not the city, which dominates.

When Leo Varadkar talks about opportunity for those who get up early in the morning, this is the constituency he addresses. If he loses it, he can’t get out of the starting blocks. But, alone, it’s not enough.

Leo has three big issues and any number of things could go wrong

Fine Gael lost the last election in Munster and Connaught-Ulster. It lost nine seats in each, compared to eight seats in Dublin and Leinster, together. Fianna Fáil’s resurgence hit them hardest there, and the economic recovery, which they asked be kept going, didn’t go that far.

There is no return to 2011 for Fine Gael, but it sees some of those seats in its sights.

And that’s just running the next election on the basis of the last. But winning campaigns are usually different.

Fine Gael, in Leo, wants to answer the aspirations of a generation with few political foundations, and, unlike their parents at a similar age, with not much home or pension to call their own. They are mobile, have qualifications, and are increasingly frustrated about their aspirations.

Fine Gael, after Enda, is not just managing a project constricted by time and fiscal resources. It faces the challenge of managing recovery in topography where the names of old townlands, and inherited outlook, are only of antique curiosity. New politics isn’t the summary of our current arrangement.

Leo has three big issues and any number of things could go wrong

It’s the attitude of people for whom the past is another country. It is free-flowing, culturally and economically, and, like every estuary, it’s tricky to navigate politically.

Reaching the safe harbour of the successful aftermath of a general election requires navigating the treachery of polling stations twice in 2018. The first, on abortion and the 8th amendment, is unavoidable. We don’t yet know the question, and I couldn’t predict the outcome.

The outcome I am thinking of is not the result per se, but the mood in the aftermath. Giving the people their say and getting overly caught up in the row over it are different matters. I suspect Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will want to leave as little blood or treasure on the field as possible.

The second outing of a presidential election is avoidable, though I don’t think avoidance is desirable. Gushing praise of President Michael D Higgins, from the Taoiseach and Charlie Flanagan, may be mildly sincere. But it has political purpose.

They want him to stand in the gap, to face down potential challengers, and leave his promise to serve only a single term on the floor. Timing is everything, and this is about timing for Fine Gael.

The next critical issue is whether they press on in October for a 2019 budget. The current arrangement provides for this third budget, but allows for nothing the day after.

The prospect of a budget coinciding with a presidential election — and the obligation to field a Fine Gael candidate, if Michael D. cannot be persuaded to sacrifice ethics for office — is alarming for Leo.

Leo has three big issues and any number of things could go wrong

It may be no less inconvenient for Fianna Fáil. Hence the need for them to clear the decks, and close down an untimely contest. Sequentially, one decision influences another.

The fundamental decision is whether to bring in a third budget that will have more resources to play with than this one, but which must dangerously wait upon events. One conspicuously unwanted event would be a presidential contest.

In the meantime, there is rising aspiration mixed with frustration. Can Fine Gael speak persuasively to people’s hopes now, unlike in 2016?

Cornerstones of hope are a job, a house, and a way to college for children. The problem for Fine Gael is that people with a job are more impatient for a house. In presiding over job growth, Fine Gael have doubled down on frustration over housing.

The same class of people can sometimes skip the queue in the health service by buying private insurance. But housing has become a massive roadblock to aspiration. It’s the key issue for the people to whom Leo Varadkar must speak, but who are not habitually Fine Gael.

Census 2016 showed a net increase of 9,000 homes compared to 2011, in a country with 170,000 extra people. This is the next election. It has begun.


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