Friday 17 January 2020

Hugh O'Connell: 'Ignore the 'electionology', the Taoiseach has to make the call'

Varadkar has no shortage of people telling him when the election should be, but window to do it his way is narrowing, writes Hugh O'Connell

Timeline: Leo Varadkar. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Timeline: Leo Varadkar. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has had plenty of conversations with ministers, TDs and government advisers about when he should call a general election.

One minister recalls a private conversation with Mr Varadkar before Christmas. "I said to him 'Will you go in May?' And he said 'I won't go in May, that's a definite. The reason why I won't announce a date in May is because everybody will be in on top of me with pay demands - unions and so on.' And I said to myself that definitely brings it back to February."

This is a useful insight into the Taoiseach's thinking on the issue but provides no real clarity. Senior Cabinet ministers have frequently speculated about the election date after conversations with Mr Varadkar but their access to the man and their portfolios afford them no greater insight than the man or woman on the street.

Last week the political bubble was consumed by 'electionology', the endless discussion and debate about when the election will be held by people who have no idea when it will be held. These circular conversations cannot last much longer.

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Within the next five days, we are likely to get either an agreement between Mr Varadkar and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin to have the general election in April or May - a deal which is unlikely to hold anyway because of the Dail numbers - or, as senior figures in all parties now believe, the announcement of a general election next month.

A Fine Gael cabinet minister declared yesterday: "I have yet to meet a colleague who doesn't expect an election to be called next week."

They obviously didn't speak to the one who admitted to me: "I just don't know."

Those in Cabinet who want to hold off until the summer are said to be motivated by their own legislative agenda but also a fear they may not be reappointed to office if Fine Gael is re-elected.

The likes of Charlie Flanagan in justice and Heather Humphreys inbusiness have busy portfolios, plenty of legislation to be getting on with and are said to be keen to hold out for as long as possible.

For Mr Flanagan it would be a personal blow if, after spending 120-plus hours in the Seanad debating the Judicial Appointments Bill, the legislation fell by the wayside.

Transport Minister Shane Ross, a champion of that bill, is equally keen to cling on for as long as possible, as is Disabilities Minister Finian McGrath.

Independent TDs have never had it as good as they have over the last four years - and may find themselves out in the cold when it comes to coalition-making after the election.

Those ministers desperate to go to the country now want to get out of jobs in which they are under pressure.

Predictably enough, ministers privately say this cohort includes Simon Harris in health and Eoghan Murphy in housing.

"He is under massive pressure from Harris and Murphy," one minister said. But both men have insisted they want to remain in their respective portfolios if Fine Gael is returned and are annoyed at suggestions to the contrary.

Mr Varadkar has expressed a desire to campaign in the summer - a la Bertie Ahern in 2002 and 2007 - when warmer days and longer evenings tend to make the public more open to being hounded by politicians. But conscious that he does not enjoy the sort of security Mr Ahern had in government, he has lately taken to saying it should be held when it is in the best interests of the country.

In recent days, Mr Varadkar has also privately let it be known he won't follow Mr Ahern's move in 2007 to make a dash to Aras an Uachtarain on a quiet Sunday in April to seek the dissolution of the Dail. "I'll do it my way," he has told people.

He probably wants a summer election because it affords him precious extra weeks in office in which he cannot only pursue his legislative agenda but enjoy the trappings of power that bit longer. These include trips to the World Economic Forum in Davos at the end of January and another trip to the White House in March.

Being Taoiseach does strange things to people, note those who have worked closely with former holders of the office. A Taoiseach is always reluctant to call an election for fear they may not win and be forced out with the loss of real power as well as cushy bonuses like a State car, State security and the use of the government jet.

But while the date of an election remains his call, Mr Varadkar's control over the situation is diminishing by the day. The Opposition is demanding that a general election should be held now having determined over Christmas that is what the public wants.

A senior Fianna Fail TD said: "I think this idea the public don't want an election has changed now. That was right up to this week, but the hospitals, the RIC commemoration and everything... this has knocked people over the edge."

Unless he acts in the coming days, Mr Varadkar could lose control of the situation.

Fianna Fail TD John McGuinness has now firmly declared he will vote in favour of the motion of no confidence in Mr Harris which rural Independent TDs plan to table next month.

It is also understood Independent TD Noel Grealish will abstain on such a motion. This means the motion will likely pass with Mr Harris either sacked or, more likely, the government collapsing entirely. Surely the Taoiseach is not going to allow the most important decision of his political career to be ripped from his hands by Independents such as Michael Collins, Mattie McGrath and the Healy-Rae brothers.

Even if he does somehow manage to secure sufficient support for Mr Harris and the rickety minority government to survive, what purpose does it serve? Another few weeks for him to enjoy the office of Taoiseach while almost everyone in his own party wants an election and the opposition decry a stitch-up?

Mr Varadkar may have many faults as a leader but he is a shrewd political operator as was evident when he skilfully won the Fine Gael leadership battle nearly three years ago.

So it should be his decision and his alone to determine his own political fate and that of his party. A busy and eventful few days lie ahead.

Sunday Independent

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