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Fionnan Sheahan: How Big Phil got it wrong twice in a row

THIS weekend should have been his crowning glory -- master of ceremonies at the first Fine Gael Ard Fheis in 15 years with the party in government.

Instead, Phil Hogan's standing has taken a battering over the €100 household charge and his handling of sensitive issues as Environment Minister has caused tensions with the Labour Party.

He remains a close confidante of Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fine Gael backbenchers are loyal to him, but his troubles are mounting as he fights battles on several fronts.

The blame for the handling of the household charge is being laid firmly at Mr Hogan's door as minister responsible.

But the Department of the Environment is also firmly in the firing line.

Within Fine Gael and Labour circles there is a growing consensus that serious errors were made.

The first mistake being cited was adopting the model of payment employed with the second-home tax, which was paid over the internet.

A niche tax on individuals used to handling paperwork on their properties is different from a universal tax on every home in the country.

The inability to bring in a simple payment system in the post office proved fatal.

The second mistake was the communications campaign, which failed to explain the tax in basic terms and even manage to contact every home in the country.

The third mistake was underestimating the hostility towards a property tax in general, which is being brought in for the first time in 35 years.

And the campaign against the household charge has been effective in building up a perception it wasn't necessary to pay the tax and organising a boycott.

The fourth mistake was less direct, but the climbdown on the €50 septic tank charge, reducing it to €5, created an expectation of a possible reversal on the household charge, once sufficient public pressure were exerted.

Labour ministers have been less than supportive of Mr Hogan's cause and remarks from Joan Burton, Eamon Gilmore, Brendan Howlin and Kathleen Lynch have displayed a lack of coherence from the coalition.

Labour were angry at Mr Hogan's failure to clear the septic tank charge reduction through Cabinet with a source saying "it's not a good way to do business".

Combined with a peripheral role in the doubling of compensation for turfcutters, he has faced accusations of caving in to rural lobby groups in the Fine Gael base and thereby weakening the drive to bring in the household charge.

"Septic tanks and turfcutters are not the issue. The household charge is the issue.

"A lot of people (in Labour) are quite annoyed because they feel they are now getting the flak for it. The Cute Phil stuff might work in the backrooms but there's a difference with communicating with the public," a Labour Party source said.

Labour figures have also told Mr Hogan they want the changeover to the property tax from the €100 household charge to happen in 2013 -- with no further delay.

Fine Gael TDs, although not exonerating Mr Hogan, are annoyed at Labour's behaviour.

"People in Fine Gael are f***ing sick of listening to these Labour ministers on the radio, especially Burton. There is a sense Labour should shut up," a senior Fine Gael TD said.

"This has turned into a complete mess and serious questions are being asked of Phil Hogan. But this Government has already had two or three U-turns and they can't afford another. It does come down to standing by the decisions they make at Cabinet," the TD added.

"To see government ministers coming out and dumping on Hogan is unedifying. They are more interested in protecting their own patch," another party source said.

But the Environment Minister's abrasive personality is also being cited as an element in the equation in the household charge failures.

"Pride comes before a fall," a Labour Party TD mused.

"He made his own bed. He approached it with a certain arrogance," a Fine Gael TD conceded.

Fine Gael TDs say after initially engaging in the cut and thrust of debate on the household charge, he is now feeling the heat.

Even the most combative minister in Fine Gael, who dishes it out heavy to his opponents, is now under pressure as the personalised attacks are targeted on him.

"He can be dismissive, which is his least enticing characteristic," a party TD said.

Fine Gael sources say the only opinion that matters about whether any long-term damage has been done to Mr Hogan is that of the Taoiseach -- and he has plenty of history and political capital there. "He'd be loyal to Kenny and Kenny would be loyal to him," a party senator said.

"He [Mr Kenny] wouldn't be where he is if it was not for Phil Hogan," a Fine Gael TD said.

"He [Mr Hogan] has enough capital and there's still room to bring the level of payment up," another party colleague said.

However, some TDs do feel Mr Kenny hasn't been supportive enough of pushing the household charge.

"Enda runs away from hard issues. Alright, he's been away in the US and now China. But he needs to start showing some bottle. He has been nowhere on this," a TD said.

And therein lies a problem for Mr Hogan as his reputation as the party fixer leads some to believe he took his eye off the ball.

"He's running the politics of Fine Gael. You'd have to ask is he spending enough time on his department work," a Fine Gael TD said.

Mr Hogan's supporters in the party say he's going to have to play a long game. "He's got the household charge now. Within the next six months, he's going to face the local government reform, which Fine Gael councillors are opposed to, then the property tax. He's going to have two bad years. But it's a five-year job."

Irish Independent