Wednesday 18 July 2018

Comment: In reality, Leo is just a posher Ross O’Carroll-Kelly version of Bertie Ahern

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Mandy Johnston

Mandy Johnston

WITH Fine Gael’s standing in opinion polls at a high point and this week’s Exchequer figures ‘boomier’ than ever, there is only one trajectory for this Government – things can only get worse.

Perhaps Taoiseach Leo Varadkar should cut and run and call a general election now.

An Taoiseach’s clarification of his intention to remain in political life for as long as the Irish electorate wants him was a welcome relief.

However, I’m faintly sceptical that such a successful, ambitious and determined man would have us believe that his fate is dependent on the vagaries of others.

When faced with the dilemma of securing a more equivocal mandate, Mr Varadkar will unquestionably wish to design his own destiny.

If recent events tell us anything, it’s that his political power is an agreement between many political interests, not a stable entity.

The danger for Mr Varadkar is the more he delays, the less control he can exert on the timing and circumstances of the next general election.

Furthermore, once Dáil Éireann is in session, no matter how well prepared the Government is, the political system will invariably produce supplementary, unforeseen problems.

With homelessness, health and housing problems all dominating the media agenda right now, it may not seem like it but this could really be the best time for the Government to have an election.

After seven years in Government, anticipating any significant short-term improvements in any of the three horrible “h’s” from a Fine Gael-led administration is futile.

Realistically, none of these issues are going to be resolved to any substantive or satisfactory degree within the next year.

Read More: Flu crisis 'to double in intensity' as Taoiseach criticised for lack of action on hospital beds

Under Fine Gael’s tutelage, homelessness has mushroomed from a political conundrum to a humanitarian crisis.

In the milieu of the crisis now is a growing frustration from agencies and charities who are struggling to even control the situation, never mind trying to resolve it. Many wonder at the lack of determination and success in this area.

Ponder this; are there many votes for a centre-right political party within the homeless community?

Housing, on the other hand, is a different issue. It’s one that may actually garner some votes for whoever gets it right.

Getting it right, however, would mean getting down and dirty with the banking and the building industries. The potential for collateral damage is too great for Fine Gael to take any risks. Therefore, the party is unlikely to take the radical actions necessary in this area either.

As for health, all hopes for short-term solutions died on a trolley long ago.

As an organisation, the HSE is now fit to challenge the Eiffel Tower as the world’s largest, most expensive and useless ornament.

Beyond the borderline delusional comments of Health Minister Simon Harris this week, we were told of the Taoiseach’s “frustration” with the health service.

Read More: 'It's absolutely unacceptable' - Varadkar apologises to patients languishing on hospital trollies

Another damming indictment of a system that repeatedly treats human beings with alarming disdain. It demonstrates the failure at the heart of this Government, whose members don’t seem to realise that it is their responsibility to run, reform and be politically responsible rather than act as part of the commentariat.

None of the Cabinet ministers responsible for these problems appear overburdened by imaginative policies or strong principles.

Luckily for Mr Varadkar, people seldom vote with their personal principles, more often they vote with their pockets.

On that front, the Exchequer figures published this week provided the greatest encouragement for the Government to go to the country sooner rather than later.

Current forecasts indicate that there will be room for €3bn in new tax and spending measures in the Budget.

This is by far the most significant war chest since the recession hit. Jobs and taxes are keeping the dream alive. Carving out a new dream will form the battleground for the next election campaign when it happens.

If you thought the ‘fiscal space’ debate was a nightmare, it’s about to get much worse.

The problems of economic success will inevitably begin to manifest. Claims of caution about how to spend our success are relentless.

However, the nature of the current political configuration, coupled with the enormous challenges in housing and health, suggest that holding back the tide of pressure even from inside Government will be an increasingly challenging endeavour.

It started already this week as members of the Independent Alliance outdid themselves with long-term planning ambitions by calling for some welfare rates to rise by €10 a week next year.

In addition to the internal political problems, external dangers lurk as Ireland metaphorically bobs along like a small sailboat caught in unchartered waters between the UK, the EU and American multinationals.

ECB interest rates could start to rise next year, and the UK could still crash out of the EU without a deal.

The tactics, and logistics, of an election are also vitally important in determining when best to have a contest.

Collectively, this Government operates in a much more effective way when outside of the confines of the Dáil chamber.

Radio, TV and social media are all platforms where Mr Varadkar’s Government excels. Its natural habitat is in the limelight, not in town halls or canvassing in doorways.

An election fought in these winter months would be fought on the doorsteps by canvassers in a limited way.

An election now might suit the presidential style of this Government because it would mean fighting the election over the airwaves and in the media, not on the ground.

The Government’s media strategy has relied mainly on set-piece photocalls. Interviews with senior ministers are often limited to one-to-one engagement with senior broadcasters.

Closer scrutiny also reveals that even these performances are confined to only a few senior ministers and not the full Cabinet complement.

This group is then supported by a small number of key junior party members who show up on time and on message. The choir boys haven’t gone away, you know!

Presenting itself in this fashion has helped Fine Gael bolster its support in successive opinion polls.

While its popularity may seem beyond consequence, paradoxically the further the Government taps in to the populist revolution, the further away we move from tackling difficult issues in any substantive way.

Read More: Leo Varadkar 'in politics for long haul' as he changes mind on quitting by 51

On the face of it, Mr Varadkar’s Government policies may seem politically expedient in the short term.

Don’t be fooled – the longer-term plans are absolutely saturated in a desire to win elections and stay in Government.

While we collectively continue to be blindsided by his sophisticated spin machine, we might pause for a second to consider that social media is simply Mr Varadkar’s canvassing tool.

A virtual handshake, if done correctly once, can reach thousands.

Presenting himself as a modern young leader, Mr Varadkar is simply utilising modern media techniques.

At the same time, he is delivering public finances which will return his party to Government.

To all intents and purposes, he is merely a posher Ross O’Carroll-Kelly version of Bertie Ahern.

Social media is the new doorstep, Twitter is its shiny new knocker. For this popular political leader who looks oddly uncomfortable in crowds, it’s just an old tune played on different instruments.

Irish Independent

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