Sunday 21 July 2019

Coalition politics of 'careful now' may be a winning hand

Spring Statement is the key element of a cunning plan to seduce the still wary, still fearful, Irish voter, says John Drennan

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan speaking at the Spring Economic Statement at Government Buildings
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan speaking at the Spring Economic Statement at Government Buildings

John Drennan

The most intriguing feature of the coverage of the government's Spring Statement was the criticism of the cautious conservatism of the Coalition stance.

It was a document that certainly represented the great apotheosis of the Coalition cartel's patented school of 'careful now' governance.

In his script, Mr Noonan set a new record for the use of cautionary terms.

He may now be into his eighth decade, but the Finance Minister managed to make simultaneous love to Dame Stability, Dame Steady, Dame Sustainability, Dame Prudence, Dame Protection, and the Balanced and Appropriate sisters.

In one sentence alone, the Finance Minister managed to refer to stability, steadiness and prudence.

Indeed, by the time Mr Noonan had finished the only conservative virtue that hadn't received a mention was Dame Chastity.

And even that represented a narrow miss.

Intriguingly, it is unlikely the Coalition will be displeased by the grim media response to its collation of 'careful now'-style sentiments.

The higher echelons of both parties believe, you see, that a fundamental change has occurred in the psyche of the electorate.

The irrepressible irresponsible Irish electorate, they believe, have finally become small-c conservatives.

The belief, which informs Labour and Joan Burton's theory of modest prosperity, is that one of the main consequences of Ireland's great boom and even greater bust is that the voters are now intrinsically suspicious of politicians bearing gifts.

Paddy may once have been a Jack-Charlton-style 'give it a lash' crossed with a Charlie McCreevyite 'I'll spend it when I have it' sort of a devil-may -care fellow.

The apogee of the age of the fiscal and political moral Methodist has, however, belatedly arrived.

Over the last seven years of famine Paddy has had, in the view of the Coalition cartel, all of the devil beaten out of his unworthy carcass.

This means that far from being driven by fear or malice the Spring Statement is part of a cunning plan to seduce the fearful, cynical voters.

The cautious, parsimonious nature of the Coalition's vision of expansionism may appear to represent a great gamble to those who still have political nightmares about the bad consequences for the Rainbow in 1997 of the 'prudent' fiscal policies it put forward.

In particular, the concern is that having won the war against the consequences of the bailout, the Coalition Churchills might lose a 'peace-time' election.

This, however, fails to recognise the reality that the Ireland of 2016 is utterly different to the non-cautious, effervescent state that was on the cusp of a boom in 1997.

In 2016, Paddy having emerged from the detritus and rubble of near default, is in no position for any fiscal hang-gliding.

He will, of course, grumble about the extremely 'modest prosperity' that will accompany 2pc increases in pay or 1pc cuts in the USC.

Secretly though, he is now a member of the 'careful now' brigade who, for another decade at least, plan to 'never again' listen to the blandishments of Fianna Fail.

Paddy might in the past, given that he was a bit of a rake himself, have empathised with the father who forgave the Prodigal Son, who seemed to be a bit of a Fianna Fail sort, for all his sins.

These days, the voters are far more likely to be sympathetic towards the second Fine Gael Labour-supporting son's complaint that the returned wastrel was getting the fatted calf whist he had never even received a goat for his troubles.

This is certainly the divine spark that is animating the electoral strategy of the Coalition.

The Spring Statement may not have been exciting or glamorous but, to be fair, the Coalition went to great lengths to say this would be the case.

And in the age of triumphant puritans - across every sphere of public life - it certainly kept its promise. Last week was about securing the political high ground when it comes to election 2016.

It was laborious and short of drama, but, unlike cavalry charges, the cautious task of building fortifications and citadels generally is. The Spring Statement is the Coalition cartel prototype of an ongoing defensive dyke of fiscal responsibility which, it hopes, will see off the fiscal and political barbarians.

The Coalition hope now is that a sufficiency of the voters will decide its fort, with strong walls built on foundations of fiscal responsibility, is a more attractive location than the marshy ground being occupied by those Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail fiscal irresponsibles.

Of course the Irish 'give it a lash' gene means 'coalitions of chaos' can be attractive in a manner that Fine Gael and Labour will never understand.

For now, despite these unnerving precedents, the Coalition remains determined to espouse Barcelona-style possession football where it has the fiscal ball and will keep it under its control.

Will the politics of 'careful now' be boring?

Oh Lord, yes.

However it will also be utterly debilitating for the opposition.

For Fianna Fail, the option now is to either stay stuck in the middle with the cautious good citizens of Fine Gael and Labour - which leaves it with no point of difference from the Coalition - or to go radical, the only other alternative for a party still caught in the cleft stick of their inglorious past.

And that will allow the Coalition cartel paint it as the bad sheep-killing dog going back to their old ways.

It of course also creates a clear point of differentiation between the safe Coalition versus Sinn Fein.

Will it be utterly boring for us?

Oh Lord, again absolutely.

But, maybe after all the dramas of the last decade Paddy has finally learnt to love the boring lifestyle.

That for now is the Coalition's 'cunning' plan and it may yet be a winning hand.

All that can spoil it now is Paddy's status as a recidivist sinner who will keep going back to political bad boys.

But, that could never happen again.

Sunday Independent

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