Sunday 24 September 2017

An election in 2015 with Labour in Opposition?

By-election result will cut short the lifetime of Government by one year

Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

The outcome of the Meath East by-election will have political consequences, the most relevant of which is that the Government's lifetime will be cut short by a year.

So you should expect a General Election in early 2015, by which time the Troika will be gone and the economy will have improved somewhat, but not to any real extent.

The next election will be still about the economy – not gay marriage, abortion or any social issue – but the economy, and the economy will still be on life support in two years.

There is nothing much else to look forward to, folks, except political bloodsport, which we might as well make the most of, if we can maintain a stomach for it.

It is far from certain that Eamon Gilmore will lead Labour into the next general election, although he will probably still be party leader by the time the local elections come around in May next year.

The Labour parliamentary party is aware, however, that Fianna Fail made the near fatal mistake of leaving Brian Cowen in the job for at least a year past his sell-by date.

Any one of four events could finish Gilmore before then, so tenuous is his hold on the leadership: a rejection of Croke Park II; the widespread repossession of family homes; a further postponement of Labour's annual conference and, of course, the Budget in October.

At this remove, however, it is more likely that the outcome of the local elections in May will dictate Gilmore's future.

He has a year to turn it around, then, or he will be replaced as leader by a combination of, probably, Joan Burton, the Minister for Social Protection, and the ambitious, and well-connected, Alan Kelly, a Minister of State.

If Labour can secure 10 per cent of the vote – better still, 12-13 per cent – in the local elections, Gilmore will survive; if the Labour vote implodes, as it did in Meath East, he will be toast, the new leadership will go into Opposition and Fine Gael will form a minority Government.

Gilmore will do two things to survive in the short term: the Programme for Government will be renegotiated, and there will be a Cabinet reshuffle, sooner rather than later, definitely before summer.

The new Programme for Government will contain a few sops for Labour to keep the troops in line, and restore credibility to some extent, but beyond that it will be largely irrelevant.

Make no mistake, Labour backbenchers are close to revolt: a further 10 could join the current five (one senator) outside the parliamentary party at any stage between now and the Budget unless Gilmore acts decisively.

And if nothing else, Gilmore, and those close to him, will be decisive when it comes to their own pensions and egos.

For Gilmore to survive, a Cabinet reshuffle is more essential: expect him to be appointed Minister for Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, in a direct swap with Richard Bruton of Fine Gael.

There will be opportunity for a further reshuffle next year when Environment Minister Phil Hogan is appointed European Commissioner, an appointment Labour will bear with gritted teeth, because it will take their bete noire Big Phil off the scene.

There is an assumption here that the commissionership is in the gift of Fine Gael, and not Labour: if it is in Labour's gift, then the Education Minister, Ruairi Quinn, will be appointed to succeed Maire Geoghegan Quinn.

The prospect of a reshuffle, or better still, two reshuffles, will have the effect of keeping Labour backbenchers and ministers of state quiet for another year.

More than anything, Gilmore needs to come out of Foreign Affairs to survive; he will be glad to do that, now that Ireland's Presidency of the Council of European Union is drawing to an end and he will not get to play the international statesman anymore. He needs an economic ministry: the Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation will also suit his need for a feel-good factor.

Enda Kenny will allow him that because Kenny would prefer Gilmore to survive; Richard Bruton will do as he is told, and, all things considered, Foreign Affairs will suit him well anyway.

So between now and the local elections, expect both Gilmore and Kenny to attend lots of jobs announcements together – the opening of an envelope – although the double act will, occasionally, also give rise to tension.

They will divide the jobs announcements between them, then, strategically, and according to constituency needs, and RTE News will lap it up like a pet dog. A striking feature around the Meath East by-election was the presence of Enda Kenny in Waterford to announce 200 new foreign direct investment jobs.

When these various manoeuvrings are put in place, Fine Gael and Labour will then wait to see what happens in the local elections, as will all political parties, of course. They will keep a close eye on Direct Democracy Ireland, in particular.

More to the point, the establishment parties, which includes Sinn Fein, will want to see if, and how, the 25 per cent disillusioned 'undecideds' who stayed away in Meath East turn out and vote in the local elections.

Fine Gael will also be anxious to gauge the true level of sympathy at play in Meath East last week, which I estimate to be at around 10 per cent of the party's support.

If Labour polls less than 10 per cent in the local elections, there will be an immediate move against Gilmore, led by Burton, who will be forced to show her hand.

But there is also a view in Labour that she is damaged goods for cutting carers' allowances and child benefit. This view suggests that Labour should skip a generation in favour of somebody like Kelly.

Burton is also a divisive personality: you either like her or you dislike her (I like her). She is not ideal leader material for a political party, then – unlike, say, Enda Kenny, who is a natural at this kind of politicking. Also, Alan Kelly is relatively untested.

There are others in Labour who would prefer a combination of Roisin Shortall and Colm Keaveney, though they both left the parliamentary party when the going got tough – something which sits uneasily with erstwhile colleagues a few months on.

At this remove, it still looks more likely that Burton is the heir apparent, and Kelly her number two.

In the event that Labour is hammered in the local elections, this new Labour leadership team will pull out of Government and go into Opposition in the hope of building a true left-right divide in national politics.

The withdrawal of Labour does not mean the Government will fall; more likely, Fine Gael will continue as a minority Government for a few months with the "bribed" support of Independents, if needs be – such as their old friend Michael Lowry.

Therefore, the lifetime of the Government will be cut short by a year.

Fianna Fail, too, has a vested interest in not going to the country too early, and, like Fine Gael, Fianna Fail would also prefer Labour to survive to form a new Government.

That said, the smart money is on Labour to stay in Opposition after the next General Election. Paddy Power has made a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition 13/8 favourite to form the next Government, which makes sense. If Meath East has told us anything, it tells us that the country is centre-right.

None of this will make a whit of difference to the lives of ordinary citizens, however; they are well sick, sore and tired of the kind of political shenanigans as outlined above – not that that will make any difference either.

Austerity will continue: €3bn will be removed from the economy next year, €2bn the year after; 400,000 people will still be 'officially' unemployed; another 100,000 former self-employed will still be out of regular work; a further 50,000 will have emigrated and 300,000 home-owners will still be struggling with their mortgages.

Irish Independent

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