Friday 22 June 2018

Early election back on table as Cabinet at war

Labour ministers said to be ‘disjointed and tetchy’ as concerns raised over cohesion in party

The Cabinet meeting in the dining room in Lissadell House, Co Sligo
The Cabinet meeting in the dining room in Lissadell House, Co Sligo

Daniel McConnell and Jody Corcoran

Fine Gael has lost faith in a Labour recovery by next year and has put consideration of an early election back on the agenda, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Serious concerns have been expressed from within Cabinet over the performance and the cohesion of the Labour Party under Tánaiste Joan Burton in Government meetings.

The junior Coalition party is said to be “battered and bruised” from its time in office and the burden is said to be taking its toll on ministers who are described as “disjointed” and “tetchy”.

Now Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been advised that the longer he waits to call the election the more Fine Gael could suffer at the polls.

Fine Gael ministers have described a discernible deterioration in the effectiveness of the Labour team around the Cabinet table in the past year, with Labour ministers said to be “not in a good place”.

In response, Labour ministers have expressed their growing frustration at Fine Gael cock-ups. “Whether it is Hogan, Shatter, Reilly or Siteserv, they have all left a sour taste in the mouth,” a Labour source said.

The frank admissions come amid tensions between Environment Minister Alan Kelly and Michael Noonan.

The Finance Minister was last week accused by Labour sources of “over-ruling” Mr Kelly on the issue of the water conservation grant.

Fine Gael sources admit that there is “little or no prospect” of the two-party Coalition being returned to power.

The assessment in Fine Gael now is that “the positives outweigh the negatives” in going for an election this year.

But Fine Gael remains anxious to agree a policy pact with Labour to maximise its own vote to ensure the party wins 50 or more seats in the election.

Such a result would leave Fine Gael as the largest party and more likely than not returned to office, either with a series of Independents and new parties or possibly as a minority government with the support of Fianna Fail.

However, senior Labour sources are vehemently opposed to such a pact, which the party believes could further damage its prospects.

There is also serious resentment within Labour that Fine Gael has benefitted to an extent from a recovery in the economy while Labour has been landed with ongoing damage from the Irish Water controversy. However, a senior Fine Gael minister yesterday said: “We arrive for Cabinet, having spoken to the Taoiseach, with our ducks in a row. We know in advance what is happening. That same sense of unity and togetherness is not there in Labour.

“The dynamic is not good. They do not pull together as we would and they appear to be beaten down by being in Government.”

Another Fine Gael minister expressed amazement at the failure of Labour to “sell its message” during the quiet summer months, given their poor poll ratings. “They have disappeared; all of them have been so quiet. Surely, if you are at 6pc and facing a wipe-out, you use the lean summer months and seize the initiative,” the minister said.

The latest evidence of a breakdown in cohesion at Cabinet follows recent revelations by the Sunday Independent about the poor working relationship between Labour leader, Ms Burton, and deputy leader, Mr Kelly.

“There are problems there, without question. The two strong personalities are not playing nice with each other,” one Fine Gael minister said.

Another Fine Gael minister agreed, saying: “The dynamic is not good between them. They are not in a good place.”

According to the opinion polls, at the moment Labour faces losing up to 30 seats in what is predicted to be a virtual wipe-out election for the party. Opinion poll analysis shows Fine Gael also faces losing 25 to 30 seats, but still expects to perform sufficiently well to emerge as the leading party.

However, Fine Gael sources, in particular, believe a Labour recovery to return the Coalition to office is unlikely. Labour sources also admit the party is facing an “uphill battle” to avoid annihilation.

The Coalition is pinning its hopes on a series of announcements over the next few weeks to boost its prospects. These include: dispersal of significant National Lottery funding to sports and voluntary organisations; details of a capital spending plan promising increased investment and the Budget.

The Budget will see the announcement of cuts in

income tax and the main 7pc USC rate; measures aimed at the self-employed, relief on inheritance tax and targeted spending rises.

Last night Fine Gael sources said these announcements would represent the Coalition’s “final throw of the dice”.

In response, a spokesman for Joan Burton said she and Mr Kenny had repeatedly made clear the election would be in 2016, and the Government would continue with the vital work of building a strong recovery between now and then.

“Labour is confident that when voters make up their minds, they will recognise the party’s role in everything from delivering tax reductions for low and middle-income workers, protecting the State pension and raising the minimum wage to delivering new investment in our schools, legislating for the X case and helping achieve marriage equality,” he said.

“Most of all, we are confident that voters will recognise Labour’s role, together with Fine Gael, in restoring stability after the worst economic crisis this country has ever known.”

Fine Gael TDs yesterday said their preference would be to return to power with Labour but admitted there is little chance of that happening, based on the poll ratings.

Dublin Bay South TD Eoghan Murphy said there was a lot of support for a pact, “but the polls at the moment make that impossible”.

He said that while many people had told him that a November election would not happen, he was preparing for that eventuality.

Sunday Independent

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