Sunday 18 August 2019

Philip Ryan: 'Varadkar's hope of retaining power depends on the Four Bs'

Beef, broadband, the budget and Boris Johnson stand in the Taoiseach's way, writes Philip Ryan

Challenges: Leo Varadkar. Photo: AP
Challenges: Leo Varadkar. Photo: AP

The Dail will close its doors next week for the summer recess but only a very naive politician would plan to spend the next two months on a beach in the Maldives or even a camper van in Courtown.

The Taoiseach, more than anyone, knows he will have a busy summer as an inevitable general election looms closer and threats to his leadership of the country stack up.

In the coming months, Leo Varadkar will have four significant decisions to make, which will ultimately determine whether the public will vote Fine Gael back into power while he is leader of the party.

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To date, only a relatively small group of Fine Gael parliamentarians and some county councillors have decided they would like Mr Varadkar to be Taoiseach. The Fine Gael membership, lest you forget, would have preferred Simon Coveney to lead the country.

But I digress. The four main threats the Taoiseach faces are beef, broadband, the budget and Boris Johnson. Navigating through the first three challenges could be as treacherous as taking on the man who, it is presumed, will lead the UK's Conservative Party later this month.

Beef

The Irish Farmers' Association and Fine Gael are traditionally supposed to be natural bedfellows. Big farmers back Fine Gael but, thanks to Big Phil Hogan, the love affair is dwindling. The controversial Mercosur trade deal between the EU and four south American countries has reignited tensions between the governing party and what is supposed to be its loyal rural base.

Farmers have had enough. Beef prices have been slashed, Brexit could potentially destroy international trade and now the EU wants to flood the continent with beef from Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. All this comes after the Taoiseach suggested he was trying to cut down on his beef consumption for environmental and health reasons.

What is he to do? There was some clamour last week for the Taoiseach to reconsider reappointing Hogan as EU Agriculture Commissioner when his five-year term comes to an end later this year. Hogan, after all, was central to the South American trade deal and has publicly insisted the deal is great for Ireland, which in many ways it is - especially for consumers struggling under the strain of the high and rising cost of living in Ireland.

Varadkar could make Hogan a sacrificial lamb and nominate another candidate who will fight for the rights of the hard-pressed farmer. But the new candidate probably won't get the agriculture portfolio. And who could it be?

There is some suggestion a Cabinet minister could be sent to Brussels, which would allow Varadkar make a much-needed reshuffle. Those touted as possible commissioners are Tanaiste Simon Coveney and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe, but both are integral to Varadkar's team.

The argument for keeping Hogan in the job is that he would be expecting a more senior role on the commission because he is returning for a second term. But there are no guarantees.

Broadband

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin told his frontbench team last week that the controversy around the National Broadband Plan is the stick with which he plans to beat Fine Gael in the lead-up to and during the next general election campaign.

There was even talk at the meeting that the Dail should sit for another week so TDs could debate claims from Eir that they could roll out the project for a third of the €3bn price-tag currently on offer from a consortium led by US businessman David McCourt.

Fine Gael is doing all it can to dismiss Eir's cut-price offer as unworkable, but you can't ignore the figures. Meanwhile, Fianna Fail's bush telegraph service (and most likely internal polling) tells them the broadband controversy is still the issue that makes voters most uneasy about allowing Varadkar's Fine Gael to continue running the country.

So, for the foreseeable future, Fianna Fail will use every opportunity to highlight Fine Gael's inability to keep state finances in check. Varadkar's jibe about Martin being a sinning priest stemmed from a Dail spat on Government overspending on an infrastructure project in Cork.

Fine Gael's plan is to keep dragging up Fianna Fail's performance during the financial crash. Fine Gael strategists seem to believe using 10-year-old criticisms of Fianna Fail will paper over their modern- day failings. Fine Gael's top brass also believe the party will essentially swan back into power because voters do not like change when the economy is good.

Budget

Varadkar will be aware voters like to have their pockets filled before elections. But he is also battling to restore Fine Gael's financially prudent image. Social protection Minister Regina Doherty has already suggested the annual €5 increase to the state pension and other social welfare payments may not happen this year due to the threat of a no-deal Brexit. Paschal Donohoe has also been issuing his usual warnings about departmental spending but they seem to be falling on deaf ministerial ears, especially in Health.

If a budget is to pass, the Government will need to give Fianna Fail some say in the matter and you can expect the usual rows over pensions and housing. You might remember Fine Gael promised Fianna Fail a €200m affordable housing scheme last year. It's now July and there is no sign of that particular budget commitment, which will make Fianna Fail's new demands seems quite hollow.

Boris

Paschal Donohoe is preparing two budgets, a disorderly Brexit budget and an orderly Brexit one. Boris Johnson, who looks set to be the next British prime minister, defiantly claims he does not fear crashing out of the EU on October 31 without a deal, despite the catastrophic impact it may have on his country and ours.

Johnson is notoriously full of bluster, and Varadkar loves to play a bit of politics. Reading his new counterpart in No 10 will certainly prove more difficult than the sensible Theresa May. Johnson is unlikely to favour the collegiate approach of his predecessor.

The dynamic in Brussels has also changed significantly since the last round of Brexit talks. There are lots of new faces in prominent positions and old allies have moved on. Varadkar will have to tread delicately to ensure solidarity with Ireland continues ahead of the Halloween deadline.

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