Sunday 21 January 2018

Two-nil to Joan on her election and Budget battles with Enda

Labour finally have a Budget they can claim as a win which could be enough to save them, writes Daniel McConnell

WINNING: Joan Burton has got her way by holding firm in her opposition to a November election and targeting lower and middle-income earners with tax cuts in the Budget
WINNING: Joan Burton has got her way by holding firm in her opposition to a November election and targeting lower and middle-income earners with tax cuts in the Budget
Daniel McConnell

Daniel McConnell

'I was very surprised to say the least. I practically dropped my cup of coffee on my lap."

That was the reaction of one Fine Gael minister when he heard Taoiseach Enda Kenny definitively rule out an election last weekend, just days before the Government's pre-election Budget.

On Sunday morning, Kenny arrived at the television building in RTE, the State broadcaster, for a scheduled appearance on The Week In Politics. His ministers, both Labour and Fine Gael, had been briefed to expect him to signal a November election was still likely.

The Sunday papers that morning carried stories to that effect.

So, as on Saturday night, Kenny was still edging toward a November election date, but 12 hours later it was being ruled out - just what happened to change the Taoiseach's mind?

The previous five days had been a most stupid exercise in electoral game-playing which sparked genuine annoyance and friction between the Coalition.

It was stupid and it was all of Kenny's own making.

It was even more idiotic when you think what the parties have had to endure together since 2011 and are hoping for re-election on a platform of competence and prudence.

That image was shaken by four days of unseemly inter-Coalition back-biting and bickering.

Since taking office, Kenny had always maintained a desire to go the full term until 2016. But last week, he and he alone, allowed doubt to creep in when he refused to rule out an election before Christmas for several days.

At a jobs announcement in Dublin, amid increased talk of a November poll, Kenny quipped that maybe the Coalition could go until 2018 as allowed under the constitution.

He refused to do any media that day, but Tanaiste Joan Burton, who was also at the event, had no such qualms.

Burton revealed she had a "long conversation" with the Taoiseach the day before about not calling an early election. Burton was responding to fresh speculation that Kenny intended calling an early election. "I have always said we would stay the course and do the five [years]. I had a long conversation with the Taoiseach yesterday, a very friendly conversation," she added. "I think we know we have a lot of work to do, and we committed to doing it," she said.

Asked at a later media event that day about an early election, Burton quipped "don't bet on it".

But the mood music from Fine Gael suggested otherwise.

The Taoiseach would again refuse to engage with the media that day and later accused it of "being obsessed" with when the election would be called.

Having resisted significant pressure from within his own ranks, including from his own Finance Minister Michael Noonan, Kenny was beginning to buckle.

"He said that no decision was made but he was coming under huge pressure from other people (to call a November election)," said a source.

Given his refusal to clarify his position, Labour TDs saw this as an act of betrayal and tensions mounted.

Those tensions were not helped the following morning, when the Irish Times splashed across six columns of its front page: "November election looms as Kenny reveals key manifesto pledge", written by Stephen Collins.

Collins, a highly respected journalist who is not prone to fliers, had clearly received sufficient information to run such a story. It was more significant given Collins had been spotted talking to the Taoiseach in Leinster House ahead of the story's publication.

That Thursday, all hell broke loose. Burton, as she had done for the previous two days, reiterated strongly at a number of media events that she was strongly opposed to a November poll.

The Taoiseach for his part again remained silent and, by doing so, bolstered the theme of the Irish Times' story. A genuine split between the Coalition was emerging with talk of abandoning the agreed vote pact.

Labour TD Arthur Spring broke ranks to say he would not support a Fine Gael/Labour Coalition if the Taoiseach called the election early.

Things ratcheted up further the following day when several newspapers, including the Irish Independent, carried stinging comments from Fine Gael ministers about Burton's outbursts.

"I think Joan needs to rein it in, this is the Taoiseach's prerogative. She needs to remember this is not a joint-Coalition decision," said one minister.

Then, throughout last Saturday, the back-room advisers to Cabinet ministers were receiving word from the Taoiseach's camp that he intended to leave the door open about an early election during his appearance on RTE.

Sources have said that there was a disagreement within the Kenny camp over the issue of an early election, with his chief of staff Mark Kenneally strongly in favour of going early. However, others like chief election strategist Mark Mortell had based their strategy on a spring election.

"Word is that Mortell was out of the country when the madness was going on and it was when he came back that Kenny decided to definitively call the election for next year," said one source.

So Kenny sat down in the newsroom studio to face Aine Lawlor and ruled out an early election.

It has been suggested that with the tragic deaths of 10 people the day before, he felt it was unacceptable to be seen to be playing games so he decided to end the madness.

Either way, he annoyed the hell out of many of his own troops.

Many in Fine Gael reacted with dismay as it appeared Kenny had bowed to Labour Party pressure and ended the intense speculation surrounding a snap general election.

Some of the Taoiseach's closest supporters said his handling of the election date has presented a "weak" picture of his leadership.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin accused Kenny of entering into a "humiliating climbdown" by signalling a spring election date.

There was a strong view within the party that by declaring a spring poll, Kenny has effectively caved to pressure from Burton.

"He went much further than we had expected - it's caused some disquiet, that's for sure," a Fine Gael minister said.

Party sources said they had been of the belief Kenny would wait to gauge the public reaction to the Budget before making a final decision.

"But he can't call it for November now or he will look like a complete fool," a Fine Gael strategist said.

"It presents us as being weak and that includes the Taoiseach," the source said last night. A number of Fine Gael deputies, several of whom were in favour of a November poll, expressed their shock at Kenny's interview. "We are incensed that Kenny has caved because of a Labour Party tantrum," a deputy said.

With the election matter settled, the Budget took centre stage.

But with the additional tax revenues to play with, and against the strong advice of European authorities, the Government brought in an expansionary Budget which was geared primarily at low- and middle-income earners.

The Dail on Tuesday reflected a changed dynamic to what we have seen since 2011. It was like the 'good aul days' under Fianna Fail.

Even celebrities like Chris O'Dowd, Deirdre O'Kane and Oliver Callan added to the heady atmosphere on the night.

TDs were smiling the widest smiles they had done in a long time, but Fine Gael TDs openly admitted it was a Labour Budget.

"Of course it is a Labour Budget, they won it hands down, but a lot of our guys are doing well as well so we can live with it," said one senior TD.

Burton has given her party some chance of survival.

Sunday Independent

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