News Shane Coleman

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Calamitous coalition has six weeks to save itself if it wants a second term

Published 30/08/2014 | 02:30

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny pictured with Tanaiste and Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton

BEWARE the ides of October. The 15th of that month is Budget day and the six-week period between now and then is arguably the most important the Coalition will face.

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Put bluntly, the government has until then to get its act together. After that it may be too late.

The last eight months has been nothing short of shambolic. After a solid, if unspectacular, first couple of years in office, the departure of the Troika was treated by the Coalition as the political equivalent of a classroom being left unattended by its teacher. Freed of the discipline of the EU and IMF, Fine Gael and Labour switched off and put the feet up. Job done. Mission accomplished.

In doing so, they completely lost control of the political agenda. The air of complacency was compounded by one gaffe after another - most, but by no means all, emanating from the Department of Justice. When you're explaining in politics, you're losing and since December, the government has been doing a huge amount of explaining - and doing a pretty bad job of it, too.

It got its just deserts in the local elections. Both parties performed disastrously. In the immediate aftermath of that meltdown, it was impossible to see the coalition being returned. Based on the locals, the two parties would be doing well to win 50 seats in a general election, never mind the 80 seats required to win an overall majority.

However, time - and particularly summer time - is a great healer in politics. A new leader in Labour; a welcome break from the relentless 24-hour news cycle; generally positive economic figures and an opinion poll showing a bounce in support for the junior coalition partner and suddenly everything doesn't look quite so grim for the coalition.

Slowly, nervously, but surely nonetheless, the whispers have begun around government: "we can be returned in the next election". The arrogance (which was unbearable at times) of the first couple of years is gone - no bad thing - but so too has the sense of panic and despair that gripped both parties in the early days of summer.

The cautious optimism is actually justified. The Coalition can be returned. For starters, the two parties can afford to lose over 30 seats and still form the next government. That's a pretty powerful buffer. They're also blessed by their enemies. Fianna Fail, despite a strong local elections, remain a 'no-go area' for many voters. Forty seats would seem to be the summit of its ambition next time around. Sinn Fein, for all the hype, will be doing very, very well to win close to 25 seats. And, despite the strong poll ratings, is the electorate really going to return 30 or so independents?

For once, it would seem a FG/Labour combination is also going to be on the right end of an economic cycle when it's seeking re-election. The economy is definitely recovering - and it should be even stronger by early 2016.

The coalition has a good story to sell: "Look where the country was back in 2011 and look at it now."

It can also credibly argue that it will be the most stable and secure option for voters come the next election. But it can only sell that story if it regains control of the agenda and becomes proactive, instead of reactive.

That's why the next six weeks are so important. The Coalition can't credibly present itself as the stable choice and saviours of the economy if they keep coming across as hapless and incompetent.

They have some room for manoeuvre in the budget. Austerity is effectively over. There will be a few hundred million for tax cuts. But that opportunity will be lost if they spend the next six weeks in a spat over spending cuts or how the reduction in tax is to be delivered. If both parties insist on trying to score public victories and use leaks and threats to secure what they want, then the coalition as a whole will suffer.

They simply can't afford a repeat of the very public water charges row. Whatever is going on behind the scenes, the coalition needs to present a united front and at least give the impression there is a coherent plan in place.

If the next six weeks is dominated by headlines of power struggles between Enda and Joan or Leo Varadkar and Brendan Howlin, with a last-minute budget deal unhappily cobbled together, amid simmering tensions, then the already damaged credibility of the coalition will take another major hit.

The coalition can't win the next general election between now and 15 October, but it can lose it.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the Sunday Show on Newstalk 106-108FM.

Irish Independent

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