Monday 22 January 2018

Election date squabbling sparks Cabinet chaos ahead of Budget

Kenny causes panic among ministers by playing games with election date and deflects attention from the positive budget, writes Philip Ryan

All aboard: Joan Burton hasn’t agreed to anything yet, but it looks like Enda’s election train has already left the station
All aboard: Joan Burton hasn’t agreed to anything yet, but it looks like Enda’s election train has already left the station
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

The train is on the tracks now and it doesn't look like there is any chance of stopping it at this stage," a Cabinet minister told the Sunday Independent on Friday.

The senior minister's view was one increasingly being shared by members at all ranks within both Coalition parties as election fever gripped the nation last week.

As far back as last May, the Sunday Independent revealed how ministers were urging Taoiseach Enda Kenny to "cut and run" after the Budget following David Cameron's shock victory in the British general election.

The Tory Party's success at the polls led some in Fine Gael to believe they would enjoy a similar electoral bounce on the back of the recovering economy.

However, Tánaiste Joan Burton and her Labour Party colleagues were cool on the idea of an early election, believing instead the Coalition should see out its full-term.

Kenny seemed to agree with his second-in-command and spent the preceding weeks and months insisting it was always his intention to hold the election next year.

The debate continued in political circles and everything from the international financial markets to the post-Christmas weather was up for discussion, but Enda persisted with his view that spring 2016 was when we would vote.

Then everything changed.

Two weeks ago, Former Fine Gael Minister come Newstalk radio jock, Ivan Yates, told his listeners the General Election will be held on November 20.

Kenny laughed it off and told Yates he would be out of pocket if decided to bet his money on the date. Everything was still pointing to 2016.

A couple of days later, Finance Minister and close confidant of the Taoiseach, Michael Noonan said there were "two windows for an election" - before and after Christmas.

It left people with little doubt as to what the minister's preference was after much speculation that he was a November man.

His comments also seemed to have influenced Kenny, who three days later suddenly changed his mantra about a spring election.

During an interview on Monday in his native Mayo, the Taoiseach refused to rule out a November election despite being pushed several times on the issue.

Panic ensued. Nobody seemed to know what Kenny was up to - least of all his Coalition partners in Labour who grew increasingly irked by the Taoiseach's solo run.

Tensions soared among Cabinet ministers as in-fighting over the election date threatened to derail the Coalition's stability message.

After spending months working on a unified election platform, the Government descended into chaos days before it was due to announce the budget it hopes will see the Coalition returned to office. Tuesday, September 29 - 7.11am: Former Fine Gael Minister and Newstalk Breakfast presenter Ivan Yates tells listeners he has been tipped off that the election date is November 20. Bookmakers Paddy Power slashes odds of a November election after a flood of bets

Later that day: Enda Kenny says: "You can tell Ivan Yates I'll have a bet with him - and he will lose." Wednesday, September 30: It emerges former Environment Minister Phil Hogan told a group of Fine Gael constituency organisers to prepare for a November election.

In response, a number of cabinet ministers move to dampen speculation of a post-budget snap election. Health Minister Leo Varadkar says: "The Taoiseach has said the election will be next year and that's what I'm working towards."

Later that evening, the Taoiseach tells a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting to ignore the speculation surrounding an early election but noticeably does not tell members it will be next year. Friday, October 2: Finance Minister Michael Noonan fuels speculation by saying: "There are two windows for an election."

"It's either between now and Christmas or it's after Christmas and the Taoiseach will call it in due course, taking all the relevant factors into account," he tells reporters. Monday, October 5: Kenny seems to change his stance on the election date as he refuses to answer when he pushed three times for his views by an RTE reporter. Instead, he says he will make his decision in the "national interest".

"You don't expect me to make any comment on that," he said. Tuesday, October 6: Walking into Government Buildings ahead of the Cabinet meeting, Kenny again refuses to comment on an election date, saying he is "focusing on the Budget".

Around the same time, Labour ministers meet ahead of the Cabinet meeting and the Tánaiste is urged to raise the election date with the Taoiseach.

Kenny and Burton meet to discuss election date in Government Buildings.

Later that day, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin uses Dail speaking time to query Kenny on the election date - citing the possibility of the Banking Inquiry collapse should a vote be held earlier than next year. But the Taoiseach dodges the question. Wednesday, October 7: At a jobs announcement Kenny jokes that the Constitution actually allows a Government to stay on for seven years but gives little else away.

At the same event, Burton says she had "long conversation" with the Taoiseach and says she wouldn't "bet on an early election".

Kenny spends much of the day speaking to party members in Leinster House but reveals nothing when asked about day of the vote.

Labour's election strategy committee meets to discuss election planning. The committee is understood to be split on a preferred date.

Former Education Minister Ruairi Quinn outlines the perils of going to the polls early at Labour's parliamentary party meeting later that evening.

Thursday, October 8: It is reported Kenny is "strongly leaning" towards calling an election in November.

Reacting to the news, Burton becomes more forceful as she insists she is "no quitter" and says she is "very confident" the election will be next year.

Labour Kerry TD Arthur Spring says he won't support a future Coalition if the election is called early. Friday, October 9: Labour and Fine Gael's pre-election vote transfer pact looks set to fall over controversy around election date. Meanwhile, Fine Gael ministers - including Frances Fitzgerald and Charlie Flanagan - rally around Kenny insisting election date is the Taoiseach's call. Ministers turn on each other as election tension overshadow next week's highly-anticipated budget. Saturday, October 10: Kenny moves to diffuse the controversy with Government sources, saying the Taoiseach "hasn't changed his view" on holding the election next year.

However, Kenny leaves the door open for a November election with sources insisting this is his only view "at present".

Meanwhile, Labour sources say the Tanaiste is still in the dark as to the election date.

Sunday Independent

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