Friday 22 November 2019

If it suits FG's interests to shaft Labour, they will do it

DOING THEIR SUMS: Ultimately, Michael Noonan and Enda Kenny will do whatever they deem to be to Fine Gael’s benefit— and Labour can just lump it
DOING THEIR SUMS: Ultimately, Michael Noonan and Enda Kenny will do whatever they deem to be to Fine Gael’s benefit— and Labour can just lump it

Shane Ross

It was meant to be the Budget or bust.

On Tuesday, Ireland will be treated to a little fantasy. A Budget speech fairy tale will be relayed live to the nation. We will be subjected to a familiar fable about how the economy is recovering, of how, despite that, the Government is going to behave responsibly in the face of temptation. The Irish people will be thanked once again for their "sacrifices". Michael Noonan will insist that his measures are not a giveaway package. And then he will indulge the nation in an orgy of spoils, a sight unseen since Fianna Fail bribed its way to electoral victory back in 1977.

Wait for the standing ovation at the end of the minister's speech. The Fine Gael troops will cheer their man to the rafters. Labour TDs will join in the applause, but their cheering will be slightly more piano. They have been measuring their moment of destiny with the firing squad in weeks, not months.

The Budget has little to do with the health of the nation. It has been about the health of Fine Gael. And Fine Gael alone. Early last week, the Labour Party's fortunes were being dumped as Fine Gael looked after itself.

Early in the week, the bookies were making FG's preference for an early election unbackable at 1/8, offering 4/1 against February. It was curtains for Labour. Yesterday morning, Paddy Power did a U-turn, quoting February at 4/6 and November at 7/4. Ah well, the same firm was giving 6/1 against Ireland to beat Germany!

On Monday and Tuesday in Leinster House, the more optimistic Labour Party TDs were desperately insisting that Enda would never risk the wrath of Joan Burton by calling an early election.

They were clutching at crumbling straws, claiming that he would hardly defy his coalition partner's wishes. Where would that leave the Coalition's electoral pact?

Solid as a rock. If Enda calls it a day after the Budget, he can still expect a bit of sulking, but nothing serious. There has already been plenty of Labour huffing and puffing from Joan, but ultimately Labour needs Fine Gael transfers.

Sadly for Labour, the biggest electoral weapon, the Budget, is Michael Noonan's baby. Equally sadly, the date of the election is Enda's prerogative.

Noonan's Budget will not be a balanced, principled plan for national economic recovery. It is a vehicle to re-elect Fine Gael.

There will be mutterings from Labour if Kenny goes to the Park post-Budget, but the hope that socialist bleatings would ever evoke sympathy from Fine Gael ears is bunkum.

Yet Fine Gael's original plans are in tatters.

Labour was originally out in the cold in the endgame. The man who moulds the Budget and the man who heads for the Park will officially call the day and the hour. Joan could have expected a polite telephone call in good time.

Labour were snookered. They were spinning the yarn that all the big-ticket items in the Budget, like the reductions in USC and the increase in child benefit, are at Labour's insistence.

Desperation and panic that Enda was about to pull the rug were written on the faces of doomed Labour TDs.

Open warfare between the two coalition partners broke out after Joan publicly threw down the gauntlet by declaring her understanding that the election would be in the spring. Other Labour ministers piled on the public pressure to stop the Taoiseach from pulling the trigger. On Friday, they played an even more desperate card.

Ciaran Lynch, Labour's chairman of the Banking Inquiry, was despatched to RTE's Morning Ireland with a hollow warning. Lynch pointed out that the inquiry's work would be scuppered if Enda went to the Aras. It was good cover, but utter nonsense.

The Banking Inquiry has bored the nation to death. The public hearings are over. Voters are not waking up each morning wondering about the next step in the tedious proceedings. They are yawning at the inquiry, but fretting about the Budget's effect on their household income. Nor will a premature end to the inquiry cause the Fine Gael strategists a second thought. It has not turned out as plotted. The kangaroo court has seen the Fianna Fail kangaroos escape unscathed. Indeed, some of those intended to be hanged, drawn and quartered have cheated the gallows and partially redeemed their reputations. The Banking Inquiry has boomeranged. Lynch's SOS sounded more like 'Save Our Seats' than a credible case for the survival of this toothless cabal.

The intensity of Labour's resistance caused a chasm. Enda began to wobble backwards towards a spring date. Yesterday, he was losing his bottle.

On the eve of the Budget election special, the two partners were tearing each other apart. Yet the Budget is the trump card. Supposedly crafted to sustain 'national recovery', it will spend the spoils before they are delivered. Frantic efforts will be made to pacify every target group flexing an ounce of voting muscle.

The old will be appeased. The squeezed middle (fashionably known as the 'coping classes' ) will be soothed, inheritance tax will be reduced, child benefit will be increased and USC will be cut. Big spending projects will be flagged. The health service monster will be fed.

Noonan's Budget speech will be based on a growth figure that is pure conjecture. Remember, when listening to Noonan, that the Government's Spring Statement anticipated growth of 3.8pc in 2016. On Tuesday the -figure will be 'updated'. Expect a hike. The higher the mother of all financial guess work - known as the growth rate - is raised in the Budget, the more Noonan can splash out on Tuesday. He will miraculously find a few hundred million above his original €1.5bn ceiling to look after a few big vote winners.

If Tuesday's flexible, but key, growth rate goes adrift next year, all bets and benefits will be off - but not until after the election.

Noonan has found a pot of gold in the bullish growth forecasts. If the projected rate goes into reverse, the gold will begin to melt -after the election.

That is why Fine Gael wants an early poll. Reveal the gold today in case it melts tomorrow.

They are not on their own. Last week the new party, Renua, found another pot of fool's gold. They unveiled an equally seductive €3bn card trick. Renua are converts to the flat tax fantasy.

Under the flat tax proposal, everyone, rich or poor, social welfare dependants or business tycoons, minimum wage earners or billionaires, would pay the same reduced 23pc rate of income tax .

Labour's minister of state Kevin Humphreys claimed that even the super-rich, hardline US Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump had rejected the Renua proposal as too right-wing.

Critics say that under the Renua fantasy a gap of €3.5bn would open up in the Exchequer finances overnight. Renua respond that the black market would shrink and the gap would be plugged by VAT receipts prompted by increased spending .

Renua's VAT receipts magic potion has trumped even Michael Noonan's growth rates. Election budgets can be wonderfully creative for their champions. They are never in the national interest.

But apparently the date of the election is. Last week, both Enda Kenny and his Transport Minister Paschal Donohoe insisted that the election date would be decided solely "in the national interest".

Far from it. It was meant to be decided in the interest of Fine Gael and Fine Gael alone. They may have blown it. Today, Enda will surface on RTE's The Week In Politics when he is expected to resolve the row with Joan.

We will probably find out that Labour's hissy fit has upset Fine Gael's carefully laid plans for November. If not, on Wednesday morning, after the giveaway Budget, expect FG to raid its massive war chest for an opinion-polling splurge. If the results show a post-Budget bounce for Fine Gael, Enda could revert to plan and head for the Phoenix Park. But not until he has completed that original polite piece of protocol, a brief telephone call to Joan Burton.

Sunday Independent

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