Monday 26 September 2016

Enda's decision to delay election will expose Budget 'spin' to a harsher light

Fine Gael and Labour run a risk that voters will interpret 'stability' as more of the same and not necessarily in a good way

Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30

Enda Kenny's decision to hold the election next year has been hotly debated this week
Enda Kenny's decision to hold the election next year has been hotly debated this week

Did Enda Kenny make the right decision to postpone the General Election until next year and did the Government do enough in the Budget to win that election?

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These are the inter-related questions pre-occupying the body politic this weekend.

My assessment on both counts is no - particularly in relation to the first question and, it follows, also the second.

The extended delay between now and the election will, I expect, expose the Budget as being too much of what we might call a 'Chinese meal'.

This is what Kenny told The Week In Politics last weekend: "I have been consistently very clear on this. It is my intention to hold the election in the spring of 2016."

Let us leave that aside, other than to note that he had not been "consistently" clear. If he had, Joan Burton would not have been in such a flap the week before last.

His relevant quote was this: "I see no reason to change my mind." But this is what it was intended that he would say: "I see no reason to change my mind at present."

We know this because official sources close to him as late as last Saturday night confirmed that that was what he would say - "at present" - leaving room to allow him to ask the President to dissolve the Dail this month if opinion polls show that the Budget has gone down well with voters.

And the Budget will go down well - until voters realise otherwise in the New Year.

But Kenny did not leave open the election date, to the consternation of several Fine Gael ministers, such as Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Health Minister Leo Varadkar, who will be Fine Gael's maître d' in the election.

Joan Burton left an inconclusive meeting with Enda Kenny the week before last, during which the election date was discussed, and immediately expressed to her team great unease at his ambiguity.

The following morning, the Irish Times reported that Kenny was "leaning" towards an election this year.

Burton immediately summoned her team and a conclusion was reached that he intended to dissolve the Dail on Friday, October 23, for the election to be held on Friday, November 13. At that point, Labour put the word out among its key officials: "The election is on."

This may seem irrelevant now, but the Taoiseach's indecisiveness may yet have real consequences.

Labour TDs and election candidates around the country were already speculating among themselves that it was more likely than not that the election would be held in November.

They were not surprised then to suddenly receive an email from HQ before last weekend, announcing that the leader would be doing a constituency tour "at some stage".

TDs were asked to assist in the preparation of "briefing docs" for her "so she knows what issues to talk about, places to name check and things you have worked on".

They were told to send the details to HQ "as soon as you can". However, in order to dampen election fever, it was added: "Joan is not touring just at this minute." A meeting was to be held about this last Saturday.

In other words, what this meant was Enda Kenny is about to stab us in the back.

So what happened? Why did the Taoiseach back away when momentum was moving towards a General Election on November 13?

The uncharitable version of events is that he fluffed his lines on The Week in Politics. More likely, he made a decision overnight or spontaneously in RTE to cave in to Labour and preserve "stability" between the coalition partners.

The Government's entire strategy will be based around the perceived "stability" of Fine Gael and Labour. So Enda Kenny blinked: he did not want to further destabilise Labour, which, in any event, and unknown to him, expected the election to be called for November 13.

Now to the related question as to whether the Budget will do enough for the Coalition to win the election, which was its main intention.

By 'Chinese meal', I mean that the Budget looks good, tastes good, smells good, but as soon as consumed, well, voters will quickly fill up with a sense of dissatisfaction.

Expect that feeling to kick in around January.

The Budget was aimed at middle Ireland, those on €30,000 to €70,000 a year, or so the Government tells us.

Let us leave aside that it was the fifth regressive Budget in a row, which should make it abundantly clear by now that the Coalition is not serious about reducing inequality in any meaningful way; although it should be acknowledged that this Budget was not as regressive as the other four.

Let us also leave aside that the true middle-income range is between €25,000 and €40,000 and that those on €50,000 a year are in the top quarter of earners.

The centre-piece of the Budget is an across-the-board cut to the Universal Social Charge, which, more than anything, the Coalition believes to be the election winner.

But that is already starting to unravel: the ESRI has said that gains in USC cuts will be partly offset by higher tax bills as a result of increased wage levels expected next year. When that kicks in, the USC cut benefit will be less than 1pc of net incomes, according to the ESRI.

In the small print, it has also emerged since the Budget that Michael Noonan failed to increase income tax bands and credits in line with inflation, which is projected to be 1.2pc in 2016.

According to Fianna Fail's Michael McGrath: "Essentially, the Minister for Finance is taking back half of the USC tax cut this way."

These anomalies and claw backs will still not become evident until later next year.

The real issue now is voter behaviour: they will splash the cash before Christmas in expectation of extra cash in the New Year, when the election will be held - probably in March.

At the same time, property tax demands will arrive and water bills will come in and whatever extra cash there may be will be handed over to Revenue and Irish Water, which will do nothing to lift the post-Christmas slump.

The US political strategist, Jim Carville said it was the economy, stupid; but in that speech, he also said: "Don't forget healthcare."

In January and February, Fine Gael's front-of-house man, Leo Varadkar, will be under sustained fire when numbers on hospital trolleys soar, as they always do.

In that speech, Carville also emphasised: "Change vs more of the same." For their part, Fine Gael and Labour are emphasising "stability", not change.

The risk the Coalition now runs is that voters will interpret "stability" as "more of the same" and not necessarily in a good way.

That is, more boom and bust, more regressive budgets, more robbing Peter to pay Paul, more Fine Gael looking after voters on €70,000 and over, more hospital (and housing) chaos and more property tax and water charges, with still not enough money in the pocket to match the 'spin'.

It is little wonder that Michael Noonan is said to have muttered into his pint in the members' Dail bar on Wednesday night: "We should be on the doorsteps at this stage." He knows - Labour is holding out for a Christmas miracle that will turn out to be a mirage.

Sunday Independent

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