Leo must go on. He must risk events, prove his capacity to handle them... convince of his credibility, writes Gerard Howlin
TODAY is the end of the beginning for the Government. It’s not, however, the beginning of the end.
I have no sense that Leo Vardkar’s appointment as Taoiseach is an impetus towards a general election. A snap election this autumn is very unlikely.
Regardless of his intentions, and especially if he has none firmly formed, a Taoiseach must insist that he intends to carry on. This is to preserve intact the prerogative to decide on an election date.
The freedom to choose is an essential part of the armoury of his office. To allow a narrative gather momentum of an imminent election, as Enda Kenny did in the autumn of 2015, and then not act on it, abandons both the power to choose and the element of surprise.
The value of surprise is overestimated, but abandoning it as Kenny did ended his ability to frame the narrative of a campaign on economic arguments more suited to Fine Gael, against the immediate backdrop of the budget. The moment was lost, and so was the election.
The trick in politics is that there is no trick. The suspicion that a government is being manipulated for party advantage or political ambition is enough to implode whatever would-be narrative launches an election campaign.
We live in a post-authority age. The default position of the electorate is suspicion. They are open to persuasion, but they won’t be impressed by anyone who walks off the job and then wants to be rehired. In the circumstances of this Dáil, this applies equally to Fianna Fáil. But today is Leo Varadkar’s day.
He is set to be our new Taoiseach, and the power to call an election is the fundamental, primal authority of his office.
For all the complaining about politics and politicians, there is no demand for an election. A peevish public narrative about the futility of the unfortunately named “new politics” is an insider’s concern. Our current arrangement is simply an expression of the democratic decision we made. We may revise the decision in time, but that’s it for now. The public expectation is that it is worked-out, as best it can be, for as long as possible. Whoever is blamed for causing an election prematurely will be walloped.
One could happen by accident, as in November, 1992. Albert Reynolds didn’t so much call an election as bring the Progressive Democrat–Fianna Fáil government crashing down, with allegations of dishonesty against Des O’Malley at the Beef Tribunal. It was a car crash for Reynolds and Fianna Fáil.
They lost nine seats and seemed destined to exit government, and Reynolds to lose his job as leader. But like Kenny last year, events intervened. Reynolds walked out of the rubble to form a government with Labour under Dick Spring. Ultimately, we the people do not elect a government.
We elect a Dáil, from which a government is formed. It’s a critical difference and one which Leo Varadkar will be only too aware of, when weighing up his limited options.
It’s a recurring feature of the modern era that winning elections, in the sense of winning more seats and apparently winning the argument in the public square, does not automatically lead to government.
We had a foretaste of that before 1992, when Charles Haughey upended the foundational narrative of his party to form a government with the PDs in 1989. That “temporary little arrangement” ended in the debacle caused by Albert Reynolds three years later. In a different iteration of the same phenomenon, we then had a change of government without an election, in December, 1994.
In hindsight, those events were a slackening of bonds of identity that went back to the foundation of the State, albeit within the confines of a long-established, apparently stable system.
By the mid-1990s, Fianna Fáil had been in coalition with the PDs and with Labour. Fine Gael had been in coalition with Democratic Left. Sinn Féin was in a peace process. And in an augury that was not understood at the time, Joe Higgins was elected to the Dáil in 1997.
By the end of the 20th century, regardless of what they said they were for, you could no longer be sure what they were really against. In an Irish context, not being able to define politicians by what they were against was truly disconcerting. We are a country that, aside from a few well-written novels, passed effortlessly into the post-modern without really engaging any of the ideological norms of the 20th century.
Fragmentation of political support since means election results are likely to be the opening act, not the final curtain, in government formation. I was amused to see eminent political scientists opine, last week, that an Irish Taoiseach enjoys far more power than many of his European counterparts. There might be impressive levers available for a Taoiseach to pull on, but most are so infirmly fixed that they are as likely to come away in his hand as achieve results.
Power is most potent when implied. The ultimate influence of a Taoiseach, within government, is the presentiment of what he might do if crossed, or what you need to do to please. The capacity of a Taoiseach to command is limited.
Firstly, there is a limited capacity to range over more than a few priorities at a time. Secondly, after the demise of social partnership and the Economic Management Council, effective mechanisms are limited. There has been a rebalancing of power back towards the economic departments of finance and public expenditure and reform.
That will be accentuated if they are reunited today, under one minister. For other reasons, I think that would be a mistake, not least for a Taoiseach directing his own agenda. But let’s wait and see.
Leo Varadkar could be Taoiseach for a single Irish summer and then call an election. On the back of a budget, or on the basis that the budget the country needs can’t be passed, he could call one in September.
I don’t play video games, but that would be playing politics as if it were one. It’s all possible within imaginary confines. But it wouldn’t work in the real world. After he appoints his government today, our Taoiseach has only one real power remaining. He has only one way to discharge it and that’s the hard way.
He must go on. He must risk events, and prove his capacity to handle them. Then, at the end, he must convince of his own credibility, and persuade sufficiently of his cause. Even then, to win more seats and win the argument may not be enough.
To put even a set-back Fianna Fáil beyond reach of power requires a significant victory for Fine Gael, not a slight margin. If there is no election in the autumn, the key moving part is Sinn Féin. Change there potentially changes the game for real.
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