Friday 20 September 2019

John Downing: 'Leo's taken a leaf out of the Bertie 'tax cuts equals votes' playbook - the only problem is, it can be ruinous'

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar makes his way to the podium before speaking at the opening of the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in Citywest. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar makes his way to the podium before speaking at the opening of the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in Citywest. Photo: Frank McGrath
John Downing

John Downing

Have you met "new Fine Gael"? It looks rather like "old Fianna Fáil". Leo Varadkar, in another step which will augment growing comparisons with the old Drumcondra fox Bertie Ahern, has hit upon a simple trusted formula to win an election: just lorry in those tax cuts.

It worked a treat for Ahern's Fianna Fáil in 2002. And again, even as economic storm clouds gathered in 2007, and others such as the late Séamus Brennan insisted there would be "no vote-buying" in that election, the bold Bert overruled them and went back to bribing the voters.

It was a great success and helped Ahern win a three-in-a-row, very unusual in the world of modern politics. So, why should it not work for the ever-intriguing Leo Varadkar and his Fine Gael?

Former Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Seán Lemass liked to dismiss questions about the non-difference between the two big parties by saying: "The difference is that we're in - and they're out."

The fear in Fianna Fáil is that, now that those positions have flipped, the situation could become a feature of the Irish political landscape. The 'Soldiers of Destiny' know about voter bribes - some of their older heads believe they invented them.

So, for openers, Leo Varadkar has committed to increase the point at which people pay the top tax rate of 40pc to €50,000 per year for a single person and €100,000 for a two-income couple. He says he will do that over the next five budgets - a visible chunky carrot dangled for prospective voters in an impending general election.

A single person currently pays the top rate at little over €35,000 per year. The Taoiseach made the commitment during his rather folksy leaders' address at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis in Dublin on Saturday evening. It seems rather carping to say his delivery was rather wooden, and his comic timing - as he delivered a would-be deft punch to Micheál Martin over his fractious frontbench - was rather lamentable. The party's 2,500 delegates at the Citywest Hotel were in a rather buoyant mood and nobody minded. Truth to tell many were more pre-occupied over the upcoming rugby international. But credit where it is due, the energy factor, for which he must take some credit, is still with his party as the new sheen upon his own leadership some 18 months after taking up office.

Back with the bribes, Mr Varadkar also said his Government plans to introduce further family benefits, including two weeks' extra paid parental leave for both parents from next year. On the dreaded but unavoidable question of Brexit, the Taoiseach said he did not want any borders to divide this country North and south, or between Britain and Ireland or between Ireland and Europe.

He argued that the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement was a deal that protects people's jobs, the economy and defends the rights and freedoms of all Irish citizens.

Like Brexit, the "e-word" just hung in the air at the conference centre.

Delegates' casual chit-chat was peppered with speculation about the timing of the next general election. The Fine Gael national executive chairman, Gerry O'Connell, emphatically told his party to be ready for an election.

"The dominant message that will emerge from this ard fheis from an organisational point of view is that whenever it is, whenever it will be, wherever it will be called, we will be ready, willing and able to defend our position as the largest party in Dáil Éireann when the next general election is held," Mr O'Connell said.

The party's heavy hitters, including Mr Varadkar, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan and Health Minister Simon Harris, tried to convey a subtle public threat to Fianna Fáil. The "subtle" part was inlaid in efforts to avoid being blamed by voters for provoking any sudden election.

So the message read: "We're ready to go - if you guys want it, bring it on." Even the usually voluble Tánaiste Simon Coveney, never one to use one word where three dozen words will do, kept it short. He spoke of well-oiled printing presses.

Clearly, tax cuts worth €3,000, or €60 per week, to the average worker would be the centrepiece of Leo Varadkar's re-election plans. The thing is that Fine Gael's first pitch ahead of a likely election next year would ultimately cost €2.9bn. It has the air of something which would take Mr Varadkar and his colleagues where they want to go - back to Government Buildings.

But it would also narrow our tax resources and risk taking us back to the brink where we found ourselves in autumn 2008. Another global economic shock from one source, or a combination of sources, appears likely in the coming years. We could again be left as vulnerable as we were precisely a decade ago.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe insisted to the 'Sunday Independent' that tax cuts were more a necessity than a choice. In fact he argued that Ireland will struggle to remain competitive in a post-Brexit era without major cuts to income tax.

Mr Donohoe said the "acceleration of where we have been over the last two budgets" would help more than 900,000 workers - all of them with votes. "It's something that would have to take place across the remainder of this Dáil and the entirety of the next Dáil," the Finance Minister said.

Well, we will await Fianna Fáil's response. And while we are waiting we will continue to be underwhelmed by the foot-dragging in talks between the two parties over the prospect of a renewal of the confidence and supply deal by which this minority coalition, led by Fine Gael, shuffles on.

Another feature of the weekend's doings was a megaphone slagging match between the two sides. Fianna Fáil's Brexit spokeswoman Lisa Chambers continued the pointless and dangerous criticisms of the Government for alleged "triumphalism" in the presentation of the draft Brexit deal.

But there was also a long-distance shouting match over the coalition renewal talks. In summary we are still left with Fine Gael seeking an extension up to summer 2020, with Fianna Fáil divided on the issue, but may be minded to yield a year extension. Each accuses the other of playing games.

As to the state of the parties, a new opinion poll has suggested that the gap between Fine Gael and the two main parties in Opposition might have narrowed. Interviews for the Behaviour and Attitudes poll for the 'Sunday Times' were conducted in the days running up to the announcement of the draft Brexit withdrawal deal last Tuesday. Fine Gael is shown down one point on 30pc with Fianna Fáil unchanged at 27pc, while Sinn Féin showed the biggest gain, up four points to 23pc.

Other polls have called that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil gap as being much larger. So, we are as wise as ever as to election timing. It's all clearly a job for next year as the Brexit crux overshadows everything amid the ongoing UK political meltdown.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss