Thursday 24 January 2019

Kenny facing biggest call of political career

Cartoon by Ken Lee
Cartoon by Ken Lee
John Downing

John Downing

If we could rely more on the long-range weather forecast it would be a help. I mean, what if there is a repeat of the prolonged cold snaps of 2009 and 2010? Add something joyous, like the winter vomiting bug and a bigger hospital trolley crisis, and you have complications you do not need as you go pounding the election beat.

A would-be Taoiseach could be fighting about the lack of salt on the side roads and some rather inglorious hospital scenes. It's not really where you want to be. Election 2015 with Enda Kenny as 'An tAire Sneachta'.

Things which could, at other times, be deemed minor enough take on a great deal more significance when you're left to call a general election. The timing is one of the few decisions entirely in the hands of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

True, he has always insisted that he will go to the latter end of his five-year mandate, which could take him as late as April 9 next if he pushed it to the absolute maximum allowed for in law. Most people around Leinster House were increasingly sold on the prospect of the election being called next February and run in early March, probably just a week before the St Patrick's Day ministerial diaspora.

The idea of 'silent electioneering' by Mr Kenny on the Easter 2016 centenary podium outside the GPO has been mooted, as Easter Sunday falls on March 27 next year. Some consider it too high-risk to be worth the candle, but it remains an intriguing complication on the election timing.

But the prospect of a cut-and-run, just after the Budget in mid-November, persists. It has been noted that Mr Kenny has left himself enough space for the earlier hustings by instructing his party to have all candidates in place by the end of this month. November polling got a new lease of life in Adare at the weekend as the Fine Gael TDs, senators and MEPs gathered for their final pre-Dáil recall think-in.

When the latest Red C opinion poll dropped in yesterday's Sunday Business Post, fans of a November election got even more aerated. Fine Gael was up three points to 28pc; embattled Labour up two to 10pc.

The combined 38pc puts them in touching distance of power. Add in an enticing Budget and the prospect of picking up the support of a few reliable independents - and you could be talking government.

But one poll-boost, especially one just after the summer lay-off when government parties generally get a respite, does not a major popularity recovery make. Mr Kenny would need a few more months to be betting the Fine Gael farm on an earlier-than-advertised election. Some would say six months - but that would, at all events, take him to the outer limit.

Hands up, this writer has long ago committed to the March election school. But it's all guesswork. Right now, it's a fair bet that the one man who will decide - Enda Kenny - has yet to make up his mind. For every November argument there is a March counter-argument.

November would be about the still-lingering afterglow of a generous Budget with upcoming tax cuts and welfare increases. March would see those realised, washing through into people's pockets and further buoying up consumer confidence.

November would avoid further political horrors falling out of the woodpile, such as more Irish Water calamities, garda controversies and other political rows. March polling would give more daylight for a canvass, especially those precious hours around tea-time. We could go on and on.

Significantly, Labour remains firmly in the March election camp. It needs all the time it can get to recover its supporters' shattered confidence.

The lower-paid civil servants, a cadre of voters Labour traditionally wrestled Fianna Fáil for, must see some of their pay restored under the deal supervised by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin. Tánaiste Joan Burton is busy trying to restore some of the welfare cuts which hit hard.

Writing in this newspaper today, Ms Burton explicitly confirms her intention to increase the Christmas bonus, particularly because of the need to give something back to pensioners - who have done so much to support their families throughout the crisis. And she clearly spells out the money which is involved.

"In money terms, a 50pc bonus would mean an extra €115 at Christmas for a person on the State contributory pension, and almost €220 extra for a pensioner couple. It would mean an extra €102 for a carer, and more if that carer had children," the Labour leader explains.

The party has already restored half the €10 child benefit cut, and signalled it would return the other half in October. Labour believes it also needs time to see unemployment - already at a much-improved 9.6pc - fall even further.

While both the government parties will be heartened by their Red C poll support numbers yesterday, they will be equally cheered to see that seven out of 10 people believe "the country is on the right track". The same cannot be said of another stark finding - six out of 10 people also believe they "haven't felt the benefit of any economic recovery in my life".

That is the theme that was alluded to in briefings to the Fine Gael parliamentary party last Thursday and Friday in Adare. It is the theme Fianna Fáil is ready to latch on to in the coming months, arguing that the Government has delivered a two-tier recovery, mainly focused on the east coast and the greater Dublin area.

Now, that issue plays far more to a March election than polling in November. There is a strong view on both the Fine Gael and Labour backbenches that the Government needs to love-bomb rural Ireland: the fear of crime must be spoken to; and farming and local small businesses need to be given incentives and boosts.

This time next week, we will be contemplating the opening of an intriguing and decisive Dáil term. And Enda Kenny faces the biggest call of his long career.

Irish Independent

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