News John Downing

Wednesday 24 September 2014

'Putting manners' on Leo may help Fine Gael stay in power

Published 21/07/2014 | 02:30

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Minister Leo Varadkar speaking to the press on the Plinth at Leinster House about his new position as Minister for Health. Photo: Arthur Carron
Minister Leo Varadkar speaking to the press on the Plinth at Leinster House about his new position as Minister for Health. Photo: Arthur Carron

WHILE many citizens holiday over the coming month, the bulk of the Finance and public-spending mandarins are expected to be at their desks, cooking up new tax horrors – or, dare we dream, some tax reliefs.

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Yes, after eight years of retrenchment and the introduction of new taxes, there is a distinct hope that we have come to the turn on the long road of austerity. Finance Minister Michael Noonan said the earlier Budget Day of October 14 had obliged senior officials to take their family holidays in July so they could work through August preparing for the big day.

There have been signals of hope from everyone in the political system – which contrast with warnings from the EU, the IMF and the Government's own Fiscal Advisory Council. So, the public have a sense of expectation that the tax burden will be eased.

But that is not the only dynamic in the upcoming budgetary process. There is also "the Leo factor" with the new Health Minister expected to fight a cannier and more successful battle for his department's slice of what is going than his ill-starred predecessor, Dr James Reilly. In fact while the hope of tax cuts offers a different budget backdrop, the personnel changes announced by Taoiseach and Tanaiste just 10 days ago offer an intriguing new Budget dynamic. At Leinster House politicians of all parties widely accept that there were three reasons for Enda Kenny putting Leo Varadkar into the Health Department.

The first motivation was that Varadkar can take a deal of the heat out of this most troubled sector. We have previously noted the certain air of fatalism that pervades the Department of Health. It is widely accepted that the problems are chronic; that in the end people are not hugely motivated in voting by health issues; and that any minister who can pull off "a draw" by maximising damage limitation in the job is in fact "a winner".

Second was a view that Varadkar will be better at winning resources. In the run-in to last October's Budget, it became clear that Reilly was not good at this. In fact he lost heavily to Social Protection Minister and future Tanaiste Joan Burton in the division of the spoils.

The third and final motivation was about "putting manners" on a putative future Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach. Some Dail veterans recalled Bertie Ahern putting Micheal Martin into the Health Department in January 2000 for much the same reason.

But before we get too carried away with this game of "fantasy cabinet" and "next generation Taoisigh" let us recall three more immediate political realities: two more Budget days leading to a general election in spring 2016 at the latest.

All three challenges will be about Fine Gael emerging as the biggest party from that general election – an outcome no Fine Gael person can take for granted right now.

In the May 23 local elections, Fianna Fail actually emerged as the biggest party; while Sinn Fein and "Independents and others" continue to add to their store. So, there are formidable challenges ahead of both government parties right now: Labour are in a fight for their continued existence; Fine Gael are keen to keep the reins of government.

Yesterday, Varadkar told the 'Sunday Independent' that he will not stand for being handed unrealistic spending targets from the Public Expenditure Department. He did not add the words "just like James Reilly was last year" as he did not need to do so.

It appears that the finance officials are not the only ones planning to work through August. Varadkar said he will spend the time trying to put a realistic health budget in place for 2015. This will be easier said than done as the health services are already overspent by €163m, and it is clear that the payroll savings under the Haddington Road Agreement were exaggerated and government concessions on medical cards will also cost more.

A Varadkar spokesman last night insisted that both he and Brendan Howlin had worked well in the recent past, especially in relation to public-private partnerships on transport projects. But tensions between the Departments of Health and Public Spending will persist irrespective of who is Health Minister. It risks being one of the main pinch points in Fine Gael-Labour relations and a challenge for Finance Minister Michael Noonan and the Taoiseach to manage to avoid a row which could spark an early general election.

Enda Kenny has already foreseen at least some of this and set up a cabinet sub-committee on health, which intriguingly will also see the involvement of James Reilly as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The other members are the senior and junior Health Ministers and the Public Expenditure Minister with the Taoiseach as committee chairman.

The sad part about this committee, from a citizen's viewpoint, is that its proceedings are covered by cabinet confidentiality. But one way or another, the extent and nature of the struggles will emerge.

 

John Downing

Irish Independent

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