Monday 24 October 2016

Government doing little to dispel early election rumours

Published 05/10/2015 | 02:30

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny must surely be channelling every inch of his William Wallace right now
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny must surely be channelling every inch of his William Wallace right now

If there was a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster which could adequately depict the current political atmosphere in Leinster House at the moment, it would be the epic confrontation from 'Braveheart', portraying the Battle of Stirling Bridge in the First War of Scottish Independence.

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An Taoiseach Enda Kenny must surely be channelling every inch of his William Wallace right now.

In the movie's famous scene, a defiant Wallace charges the line, screaming "HOLD, HOLD", to prevent his battle-torn troops from entering the fray a moment too soon.

With exchequer figures growing at rates faster than we could ever have envisaged, pressure is mounting to cut and run to the country. Burgeoning finances are a welcome development for us all, but they also bring with them a world of pain for politicians.

The art of tempering expectations is somewhat lost on the political profession and this Government certainly hasn't mastered it yet.

In the first nine months of 2015, our tax take totalled €31.6bn: that's almost €2bn (€1.74bn or 5.8pc) ahead of where the Government thought we might be at this point in the annual economic cycle. In 2009, if any politician or economic commentator had predicted such seismic shifts they would have been laughed out of town. The hits just keep on coming.

The capital spending plan announced last week was a spend-fest of trains, planes and automobiles. The Government put a whopping €27m of taxpayers' money into its production. On the flip side, the Central Bank is calling for a neutral Budget and when the ESRI begins publicly imploring the Government not to throw the kitchen sink at the electorate, you know the fiscal tides have well and truly turned.

As a result of recent discussions around what is essentially macroeconomic policy and projections, election fever has swept through Leinster House like a medieval plague.

The momentum of party pressure within Fine Gael and even Labour now must be becoming unbearable, with more positive economic projections than you can shake a stick at.

While the Taoiseach has repeated his assertion many times that the Government will run its full term to spring 2016, many believe that the news is simply too good at the moment to resist an early election.

Interestingly, the main players in both parties are doing little to dispel the rumours.

On the contrary they are actually fuelling them.

The publication of the exchequer figures is usually delivered by departmental officials: it's rare (but not unheard of) to see a political figure present. However, last week's figures proved too positive to resist - this time not one but two politicians served them up.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin "buddied up" like Woody and Buzz Lightyear from 'Toy Story' to deliver the latest litany of good news. The allure of good news association becomes stronger for politicians as the election draws near, so who can blame them?

Notwithstanding the positive results, both men insisted that the forthcoming Budget package will be close to €1.5bn, a wise course.By sticking to what may seem like a relatively "modest" package given the current fiscal bonanza, they can claim to be economically conservative by giving a little, but not a lot.

More importantly, they can point to the growing money pot and say, with confidence: 'Stick with us guys and there is plenty more where this came from.' Claims last weekend that a pre-buttal against Fianna Fáil is just about to start is another sure sign that the game might be on soon. Hunter S Thompson could not have imagined that his novel 'Fear and Loathing' might come to categorise an Irish general election narrative. His depiction of a drug-induced haze of overindulgence in pursuit of the American dream could provide a neat storyline for the Government's message. A fear and loathing of Fianna Fail or any other untested combination could return us to the bad old days of austerity very quickly.

Recent statistics have all centred on macro finance. But it is the Budget (the real figures that people are interested in) that is the important thing in terms of persuading the electorate that their lives are being positively impacted by this Government.

Presumably, behind the scenes, Government theorists believe that there will be a moment when all of the economic largess will reduce us to a fugue state of delirium when we will be persuaded to vote them back in. Figuring out when that feeling happens is not easy.

If the Government is holding out for a spring election, it would do well to stop the onward charge of election fever before it takes on a dangerous momentum which cannot be contained. Hold.

Irish Independent

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