Monday 21 October 2019

Kenny is killing time until Budget and the election

'The finish line is close, but the potential for self-harm is considerable – can the Coalition maintain the appearance of a united front?'
'The finish line is close, but the potential for self-harm is considerable – can the Coalition maintain the appearance of a united front?'
John Downing

John Downing

There is a keen sense that Enda Kenny feels his work in government is done as economic stability and a nascent recovery predominate.

Now it's all about delivering a good Budget next October and then landing Fine Gael's first ever back-to-back general election win. As this political year limped out the Leinster House gates last Thursday evening, it was clear the major gaffes which characterised the previous one had been avoided.

But any semblance of political momentum has been lost. It is a dangerous time to be in government. The finish-line is within touching distance. But the potential for self-harm is considerable and one wonders how long the Government can maintain the appearance of a unified front.

Timing is crucial in politics but it is everything when it comes to picking an election date. For every argument in favour of a quick post-Budget day strike-out, there is a strong argument for waiting out to the very end in the first week of April.

The memory of 1997, the last time Fine Gael and Labour were seeking re-election, will haunt them. It turned out that then Taoiseach John Bruton called it too early for June of that year and would have benefited by waiting to the end of their term in November.

Enda Kenny was in that cabinet and so were Michael Noonan and Richard Bruton. The Labour team included Brendan Howlin, and Joan Burton was not a million miles away as a junior minister. Some insiders say the memory haunts them as it is too often forgotten how close they came to defeating Bertie Ahern in that fateful election.

Playing guessing games around election dates is often a fun past-time for those of us who like our politics. But it is worth noting that the span for this one - from mid-November to early April - is pretty narrow.

And the reality is that most politicians have been in election mode since after the local and European elections in May of last year. Ministers will dutifully tell you the departmental work is not neglected. But the reality is that the focus on what could be called "widget politics" has now switched to matters electoral.

Enda Kenny has on more than a few occasions recently revealed how he takes strength from David Cameron's surprise win in Britain. Talking on the radio to Seán O'Rourke last Thursday, he even went so far as to predict an electoral revival for his Labour colleagues as he insisted that, like Britain, the pollsters here will make a wrong call on the election outcome.

It is unlikely that his Pollyanna politics persisted as he read the latest of a slew of opinion polls yesterday. The Behaviour & Attitudes survey for 'The Sunday Times' showed Fine Gael unchanged on 24pc and Labour still stricken on 8pc.

A combined Government total of 32pc might not nerve one's trigger-finger on that election start gun. But then again, a cleverly crafted Budget from Messrs Noonan and Howlin, who have a combined 62 years' experience in Dáil Éireann, could help bridge a gap of about seven or eight points. We know that with a general election vote nudging 40pc, a bounce of the PR ball, and perhaps some help from clubbable Independents, Enda Kenny could once more be the Government Buildings' anchor tenant.

But there is a lot of noise and confusion in the market. Can the media resurrection of former Fianna Fáil luminaries such as Charlie McCreevy, Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern have impacted, badly and related to that party's fall of three points to 18pc in this latest poll? If so, then some writers' predictions - including this one - that the Bank Inquiry would not hurt the "Soldiers of Destiny" could prove misplaced.

We also need to see why Sinn Féin declined by 2pc. Are we to assume that the increase of four points to 32pc for those "Independents and Others" is related to the exposure given to Independent TDs including Paul Murphy and Mick Wallace earlier this month for various issues? We must await more survey results for a clearer picture on all these issues.

But a span of between a quarter and a third of people saying they will vote for someone other than the established parties tells a story of disenchantment in contemporary Ireland. Again it reminds us that the next election will be the most intriguing political contest for a very long time.

This in turn tells us what a dilemma faces the Taoiseach in choosing the date. In deciding he will seek the counsel of a few trusted associates and he will consult with Joan Burton and Labour. But the choice is his and his alone.

The Taoiseach has been consistent in asserting that he will wait out the entire five-year term, signalling he will go as near as possible to the final legally allowed date of April 9. But if the facts change, Mr Kenny would be entitled to change his mind. A well-received Budget in mid-October and improved poll figures could be that change.

Meanwhile, in an ideal world we would have an early Budget swiftly followed by an election. This world is not ideal and politics is many things but it is rarely neat.

Irish Independent

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