Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s new political ploy is to nudge and wink at what’s left of his electoral base any time a microphone is put in front of him.
He was at it yesterday during one of his regular appearances on RTÉ Radio 1’s Today with Claire Byrne when he was being asked about the Government’s whopper €6.7bn Budget.
Senior Fine Gael figures are privately and publicly insisting the €200 electricity credit which was deducted from energy bills should be repeated again this year or next year as part of the cost-of-living crisis Budget.
Fianna Fáil and the Green Party aren’t as enthused with spending another €400m of taxpayers’ money on the credit as they believe, along with the likes of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), that Budget measures should be more targeted towards those on lower incomes.
The €200 electricity discount goes to everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or how many light bulbs you have in your house to light your crystal chandeliers.
You could be heating your Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool or charging a fleet of Teslas – as far as Leo Varadkar is concerned, you should still be entitled to the €200.
If you own a mansion in Howth and a holiday home in west Cork, you should be entitled to €200 off energy bills on both, according to Varadkar.
Claire Byrne put the ERSI and Opposition’s concerns about the universal nature of the electricity discount to him during the interview.
“If they are saying we should only do targeted measures I disagree with them because there are people in Ireland who are on middle incomes,” Varadkar responded.
“The average person in Ireland working full-time earns around €45,000 a year. If the ERSI and the Opposition are saying we shouldn’t help them, I disagree, because these are my constituents, they are the people I know. I meet them all the time,” he added.
The Fine Gael leader insisted there are people on “good incomes on paper” but when you take into account income tax, childcare costs, mortgage payments they can often be struggling to make ends meet as much as someone on a low income.
This is not an entirely new sentiment expressed by the Tánaiste but it is becoming more pronounced as Fine Gael battles against electoral stagnation after more than a decade in power.
Fine Gael has been holding regular meetings seeking to realign the party’s approach to politics.
The outcome has been a plan to specifically target a set of voters who it believes have been left behind by a left-wing Opposition which is only concerned with the most vulnerable in society.
The demographic is middle-income earners who feel they pay for everything and get nothing in return. These voters are sick to their back teeth listening to Opposition parties demand more welfare increases for various groups of people and feel they hand over too much of their hard-earned money.
After announcing details of his spending parameters for the Budget, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe sent an email to Fine Gael members entitled “Putting money back in your pocket” in which he celebrated the €1bn tax package he was planning.
“The cost of living is getting higher and we believe one of the best ways to tackle this is by enabling you to keep more of your own money. We want to avoid workers having to pay more tax if they get a pay rise to offset inflation,” he wrote.
A senior Fine Gael source involved in election planning said the party has developed “tighter messaging” aimed at specific voters.
The new direction allows Fine Gael to make itself more distinctive to voters than Fianna Fáil as the two parties risked morphing into each other in recent years.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin was asked about the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael when his parliamentary party met last week.
Martin said he did not want to discuss the differences between the two parties but added that Fianna Fáil will prioritise the “marginalised, those on low incomes and those who will feel the brunt most from the inflationary cycle”. But is this a space where there are many votes for the governing party which is constantly lambasted by the Opposition and lobby groups for ignoring the most vulnerable in society?
Interestingly, Sinn Féin has started including the plight of “middle-income earners” in its speaking points and policies.
It seems the fight for the squeezed middle may yet be the key battleground for the next election.