FF aren't dead and buried yet
There is a good chance that between now and the General Election, Brian Cowen and Fianna Fail could begin to look like a suitable group to be returned to office. Extraordinary as that may seem at present, it could happen.
While the four-year plan was drawn up by Fianna Fail (in consultation with their junior government partners, the Greens), it is now the blueprint for the next three budgets and therefore for the next government -- as well as being the Fianna Fail election manifesto. Fine Gael and Labour accept the bottom line of the plan -- ultimate savings/taxes of €15bn by 2014. Fine Gael disagrees slightly with Fianna Fail on some of the emphasis, either on taxation or on cuts, but not enough to stand out clearly. Both still say they will not force change in the public service. Labour fundamentally disagrees with them both, except on that latter issue.
The Government frontloaded 40 per cent of the plan in to last week's Budget to ensure that it will be well under way before their present term of office expires. They also tipped it much more heavily towards taxation than had been anticipated. Brian Lenihan suggested this would spare tax hikes in succeeding Budgets but he was corrected by Fine Gael's Michael Noonan, who pointed out that while they had indeed imposed 66 per cent of expected cuts that still left further substantial adjustments to come.
The role of the Greens is becoming increasingly comical. They demanded an election by the last week in January. Then they agreed it could wait till the Finance Bill was through, which could be any time in February or March. Now suddenly they have realised they still have a few pieces of "Green" legislation they want to get through, including something on climate change and political donations. Noel Dempsey reportedly told them acidly that they should have thought of that before they pulled the plug. However, they may yet get their wish if the Taoiseach decides this is a handy excuse to further push back the date of the General Election they are forcing him into.
But eventually the people will have a chance to decide. By then they too will have become convinced that we are stuck with the four-year plan and the question facing them will be who do they feel can best administer it. The alternatives are clear -- Fianna Fail with whatever Dail support they can muster, or Fine Gael and Labour. The problem for the opposition is that right now they don't look anything like a cohesive alternative government. Michael Noonan is playing a blinder but Enda is keeping out of sight. And after being impressive earlier on, Joan Burton seems to have lost her way while Eamon Gilmore is simply becoming tiresome.
But Enda cannot hide forever. The Taoiseach's savaging of a few journalists last week was not as meaningful as some observers would have us think. He talked a lot and was forceful, but what has he done? Nonetheless, if he can sustain or revive that kind of energy for the pre-election leaders' debate he will make the Fine Gael leader seem ill-prepared for government -- judging from past performance.
Maybe Fine Gael and Labour each believe they can either achieve an overall majority -- unlikely -- or they are each relying on being such a dominant government partner that they will be able to impose their will on their junior partner. And perhaps that will happen for one of them. But just in case it doesn't, they should by now be trying to demonstrate some kind of common ground on how the next four years should be approached. To fail to do so is to deprive the electorate of a proper choice.