Monday 14 October 2019

Leo and Micheál slugging it out to be next Taoiseach is only show in town

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty Images
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Getty Images
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

The underlying realities of Irish politics are shifting. 'New politics' is being replaced by a new narrative. The supply and confidence arrangements between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were always destined to be a "temporary little arrangement".

While the deal formally finishes this October with its third budget, it's psychologically over in May with determination on the Eighth Amendment referendum.

The showdown to be Taoiseach, Micheál Martin versus Leo Varadkar, is well under way. Every issue should be seen and analysed through this prism. This is the crucial context for Martin's Dáil volte face, to shift from the previous pro-life perspective to outright support for an open abortion regime up to 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Leadership isn't about 'me too'. It sets directions, charting a course for colleagues, party members, supporters and the public. It involves taking risks when choices are difficult and binary. Early declarations involve courage and can be inspiring.

Belated caution, awaiting consensus, can define leadership indecision and even weakness.

Martin stole a march on Varadkar. The Taoiseach's absence from the Dáil debate was disappointing and ill-judged - backseat driving.

On Monday, he'll have to commit to referendum wording and a preferred legislative option of abortion regime, in event of repeal. Varadkar's obfuscation, delay and public procrastination was too clever by half.

Another Leo banana skin looms large. The Repeal and Oireachtas referendum wording is highly dubious, even dangerously divisive with pro-choice campaigners. Repeal simpliciter wording, as recommended by the Oireachtas committee, is politically preferable.

Rumoured advice from the Attorney General could cause serious disharmony. Political expediency should prevail over legalities.

Martin's support of the no confidence motion in then Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and his referendum demarche acknowledges that underwriting Varadkar by FF only succeeds in strengthening FG's pole position. Notions that FF can displace FG in government by constructive conversations are naïve and unsustainable.

Power is acquired through adversarial politics. Leo's honeymoon is over.

Since his elevation, he's eclipsed the Soldiers of Destiny. His spin machine has won over the media bubble of political correspondents. They're benignly supportive or subconsciously in awe of Leo. Government saturation of social media is vastly superior to the Opposition.

FF's frontbench team is indistinct, ineffective, dormant, docile, even lazy - often unavailable to instant broadcast media.

The latest Behaviour & Attitudes/Ipsos opinion poll confirms presidential politics. Varadkar's satisfaction rating of 52/60pc supersedes FG's 32/34pc market share. Martin's 42/50pc satisfaction rating supersedes FF's 26/25pc market share. The best brand image for both parties is their leader, their best electoral assets - despite certain TDs being oblivious to this reality.

The most important battleground, as always, will be floating voters in marginal constituencies. The ground war is well under way.

Intensive preparations currently focus on candidate selection and localised micro geopolitical strategy. Extensive polling research is focused on issues and names that'll secure extra seats.

The present tally is FG 50/FF 45. FF needs to win 10 seats, primarily on the East Coast, the commuter belt and within the M50 Dublin region. Top of this target list is Dún Laoghaire which is returning to a four-seater (without Ceann Comhairle). In the 1983 referendum, Dún Laoghaire was the most liberal constituency in the country and little has changed since. Ergo, FF must attract younger urban female liberal voters if it's to be the largest party.

Abortion is only ranked by 15pc of voters as the issue most likely to influence votes so it suits FF and FG to have this divisive referendum disposed of before the election.

The majority of voters place health, housing and economic issues as the critical focus and FG and FF still have to convince doubters of their competence credentials on these perennial big-ticket problems.

New politics only survived this long because of favourable economics with growth dampening contentious bushfires.

Money was available to defuse Irish Water household bills and procure refunds.

Extra cash of €3.8bn for social housing/emergency accommodation provides a sticking-plaster response to homelessness. Flexibility to commit medium-term resources to fund an additional 2,500 acute hospital beds ameliorates the trolley crisis debate. €40m is found to fix pension anomalies.

Governing is easy when there's oil to silence squeaky wheels. Prosperity tends to extinguish protest politics. Enhanced centre parties appeal to aspiration rather than anger. Both FG and FF seek to re-take Independent seats, garnered when voters' vented with antipathy.

But we won't always have the fastest-growing economy in the eurozone, with tax revenues rising by 6pc per annum. Most imminent threats arise from the sustainability of €8bn of corporation tax from multinationals.

Donald Trump's success in securing the return of $200bn of offshore Apple investment is a foretaste of US FDI strategy to prioritise future tech research and development at home.

Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in Davos, the EU Commission and European federalists in Brussels are driving the case for harmonised tax agendas and single EU minister for finance. We've no UK ally at the EU table.

Brexit compounds these threats. Alarm bells are ringing with the collapse of Carillion. It may denote a seminal moment (like Lehman Brothers in 2008) to signal a British recession.

Anecdotes abound of a dire property and consumer downturn with our indigenous industries facing friction across export markets.

So, soon we'll need strong government again. An administration to take tough decisions, rather than allocate available resources.

Who leads the next government is now the central fulcrum of Irish politics. A cynic's choice: Posh Boy or Cork cute hoor.

Collecting the prize also includes leadership attitudes to coalition. Sinn Féin may become the pivotal player in a revised two and a half party system, displacing Labour.

To become Taoiseach, Martin or Varadkar could require Mary Lou McDonald as Tánaiste.

FF made a mistake in underestimating Leo. Martin must now compete toe-to-toe with him for every bouncing political football.

Otherwise, as Leo takes on McDonald, FF could be marginalised as irrelevant.

Leo v Micheál doesn't have the hype of McGregor v Mayweather. But every issue must be distilled through this filter. Game on.

Irish Independent

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