If you want to spring a surprise, spring is the time to do it. Economists hope an election won't happen until the public finances are put right, and that will take at least until 2012. But if an election is held before then, and if this happens because the Government wants it to, next June is the likely month. It could, of course, collapse without wanting to and as we saw last week, that event could happen any time. But that is precisely why, from the Government's point of view, a June election -- an election whose timing it can control -- cannot be ruled out.
As the slog of government gets harder, the coalition's cohesion is likely to continue fraying around the edges, increasing the chances of an unplanned and possibly chaotic election. But this is only one reason why we might be voting in June. Before elaborating on others, let me outline a speech I heard a respected backbench TD give recently. I cannot mention him or exactly what he said, because the speech was off the record.
The gist of it was this: Government, he said, is about hard slog. It is unglamorous, tough and no-nonsense; not for faint hearts or me-feiners. George Lee's resignation, he went on, revealed an Opposition obsessed with quick-fix celebrity politics and without the substance to govern. Given Richard Bruton's stoic pursuit of public interest over three decades, this particular remark was unfair. But his next point wasn't: The Opposition, he said, had been indecisive about what it wanted. The Government, he argued, was decisive and also determined to do the right thing. Fine Gael's flip-flopping on public pay gives him a point here. But the really important point about this speech was the impression I got that the Government has reached -- and successfully overcome -- a pain threshold. These guys have just been through the mill and it's toughened them up. There are several reasons why a "Feel the fear and do it anyway" general election could be called in the next few months.
First up is an answer to a question you may have asked yourself: Why do governments usually go to the country in June? Simply because June is the only month when the cold and dark of winter is still in our memory but the weather is (usually) warm(ish). The memory of the former and the pleasure from the latter creates a subconscious feeling that things are changing for the better. As it happens, April is likely to see signs of economic growth getting more frequent. We won't feel the heat, but we will see the sun and the Government will be able to tell us that we'll soon feel some warmth on our skin.
Of course, that might also argue for a 2012 election when the recovery will be in full swing and its effects have trickled down. But unlike the last recovery, the economy's debt overhang means that this recovery's trickle-down will literally be a trickle. And as the last Rainbow Coalition discovered, economic growth is -- on its own -- no guarantee of re-election. Where now it is a fresh new fact, the news that the economy is growing will not be news in 2012. Rather its jobless character -- not to mention unpopular decisions regarding the banks -- may have shoved it aside.
Not that Fianna Fail's hopes of re-election are any better than awful. But if it can keep its seat loss in an election to between 10 and 15 seats, it will breathe a sigh of relief. The sudden collapse of the government in unfavourable or scandalous circumstances could put 20 to 30 seats at risk. An election in 2012 also puts more clear blue water between last December's Budget and whatever recovery does emerge. That Budget hurt like hell and many are hopping mad over it. But it hurt across the board and the man who implemented it, who himself is battling with cancer, is seen as doing right by the country, and as turning things around. Sadly, although his credibility will endure, he may have to take a back seat for a while as he undergoes the quite harrowing necessary treatment his illness requires. And if the Government wants to seek a public mandate for his decisive action, it might wish to do so sooner rather than later.
And even if implemented by Brian Lenihan, the next Budget is likely to be a more brutal affair, politically speaking. It will have to achieve similar savings to the last Budget but won't be able to use across-the-board pay cuts.
The next Budget may also increase taxes, annoying both the taxpayers and public sector workers at the same time. How much better to go to the country now with the challenging question "Who governs Ireland?" Because it can't cut pay across the board, the next Budget will be more sectorally and geographically targeted. Some -- but not all -- public servants may see further pay cuts. More than the last, the next Budget will face battle-ready unions and angry backbenchers.
In Fine Gael, Enda Kenny may not last long. An election debate between him and Brian Cowen -- even given the recession -- is unlikely to go Kenny's way. Even if they have regrouped after George Lee's resignation, the public's perception that Fine Gael is more economically competent -- and politically inspired and visionary -- than Fianna Fail has been lost. As Fine Gael's lead over Fianna Fail falls from 13 to 7 per cent, were another poll to close this gap further in a significant way, a leadership crisis could ensue in Fine Gael. Backbench Fine Gael TDs have already made this clear.
And that is when the Government could pounce. The Government has spent a shocking €300m and 10 years on the Moriarty Tribunal. It might justify this massive waste of time and money to itself if it thinks it can use the tribunal's findings to embarrass Fine Gael.
www.marccoleman.ie Next Wednesday, Coleman at Large looks at our newest party.