Tuesday 22 January 2019

Regrets? Martin may have a few but election will still be hard won for Leo

The troops may be restless in Fianna Fail but voters value 'trust' and 'prudence' and will not be bought by the Budget, writes Jody Corcoran

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

It must cross Micheal Martin's mind these days that had he accepted Enda Kenny's offer of an 'equal partnership' Grand Coalition in 2016 he could reasonably expect to be Taoiseach this year.

Martin angrily rebuffed the offer back then when, alternatively, he could have negotiated an occasionally mooted 'rotating Taoiseach' deal in such a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition.

Make no mistake, Kenny was desperate enough to concede it.

In such a scenario, Enda would now be preparing to step down as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, Martin would be into the hot seat to lead a country with a booming economy for another two years or so, and Leo Varadkar would be a mere twinkle in the eye.

The odds were, when the scheduled election came around in 2021, Fianna Fail, as the lead party, could expect to do better than its still relatively positive current opinion poll ratings indicate.

All of that is with the benefit of hindsight, of course.

At the time, the Fianna Fail leader had other priorities, foremost of which were to continue to rebuild the party after the 2011 meltdown and to spike the guns of Sinn Fein, who would have been lead opposition party.

So, he negotiated 'new politics' instead, in the form of a 'confidence and supply' deal which was supposed to give Fianna Fail authority, if not outright power, and allow it the freedom to sit on Sinn Fein in Opposition.

The deal may have been relatively good for the country, but it has lost the confidence of, I would say, 80pc of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party and 100pc of the membership.

The idea was that Fianna Fail, in Opposition, would effectively dictate policy to a minority Fine Gael-led Government and claim all or most of the credit.

For a while it worked: Fianna Fail soared to the low 30s in the opinion polls and Fine Gael, still under Kenny's leadership, went in the opposite direction.

And the Fianna Fail front bench got busy measuring their posteriors for a government Merc.

Oh, how things change.

So, what drove the change in circumstances? Two things: Enda Kenny resigned to be replaced by Leo Varadkar, and the economy took off.

And the combination of an enigmatic young Taoiseach bestriding the world stage, leading a country approaching full employment, and standing up to the 'old enemy' Britain, has significantly set back Fianna Fail's grand plan to return to power within a decade of its 2011 meltdown.

Now Micheal Martin is in a right old bind: nine points behind Fine Gael in the opinion polls, with Leo preparing to dole out €4bn in the third and final Budget under confidence and supply, and with Fianna Fail troops getting increasingly restless.

From 'rotating Taoiseach' to, possibly, first Fianna Fail leader never to be Taoiseach to, inevitably it would follow, the latest deposed Fianna Fail leader - at odds with much of his party over abortion.Them's the breaks, folks.

All is not yet lost, however. The Fianna Fail leader still has a few cards to play, difficult as it is to know how to play them, but play them he must in what, increasingly, looks like a losing game.

Leo Varadkar, of course, also has a few cards of his own to play, in what looks more and more like a deck stacked in his favour, and play them he will, you can expect, with skill.

The restlessness in Fianna Fail has given voice to old concerns about Micheal Martin: he is indecisive, they say; his advisers do not listen to the parliamentary party or grassroots; he has missed several opportunities to win advantage, has no real exit strategy and is hoping for a banana skin to trip Varadkar; added to which, he has lost the dressing room over his stance on abortion.

But there is an underlying issue of which all of his critics have lost sight: in a word, that is 'trust'.

There is a strong view in Fianna Fail this weekend that the party should pull the plug before the scheduled end of confidence and supply. The argument goes, why allow Leo Varadkar the benefit of a €4bn Budget giveaway?

However, that view harks back somewhat to the old way of doing things: cute hoorism, if you like.

To restore trust in Fianna Fail, Martin is determined to see out the three Budgets, and the Finance and Social Welfare bills, too, the impact of which will not be felt in the pocket for months anyway. In doing so, he hopes the public will reward him for being true to his word.

At year's end, a review of confidence and supply is scheduled with the possibility that it could be extended for another two years.

The widespread view, which I share, is that it will not be extended.

Micheal Martin's new public expenditure spokesman Barry Cowen last week suggested an extension was "unlikely".

I am told he was not 'put up' to this by the party leadership, which has attempted to row back somewhat from that statement, or to at least leave the outcome of a review uncertain.

Cowen was right, though, when he said, in relation to this confidence and supply deal, that its "natural lifetime may be over".

While the Government, or this form of government, remains relatively popular with the public, I believe they will, without blame or apportioning fault, accept that both parties have lived up to the agreement negotiated in the aftermath of an inconclusive election.

As such, neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael will have much to fear from the public should there be an election within six months to a year.

If anything, Micheal Martin may have more to gain should that election be held in, say, February, or early in the new year: the record shows incumbent governments perform less well during what is, generally, a depressing time of the year with little money in public pockets.

In that election, we can expect Fianna Fail to broaden its narrative beyond a 'fair society' and an 'Ireland for all' to a campaign which will centre on 'good public services'.

As argued by Micheal Martin in Galway last Friday night, this would entail the provision of "decent and affordable homes to rent or buy"; to stop the "relentless concentration of high-end employment, population and investment in a limited number of places"; to "diversify our economic base - particularly through strengthening indigenous firms"; to "protect the social cohesion… built on a spirit of community and shared opportunities"; and to "overcome the impact of the historically regressive Brexit vote".

As I have said, Leo Varadkar, and Fine Gael, will see this coming, and will play their stronger hand will political skill. But if the underling issue for Fianna Fail is 'trust', then for Fine Gael, or any incumbent government, it will be 'prudence'.

The country may be in a better place, but memories of the crash are still fresh. Varadkar would be a fool to blow the Budget on tax cuts and unsustainable spending - and he is no fool.

Fears in Fianna Fail, and among Martin's critics, that Leo will splurge €4bn to win the election may be overstated and, if anything, betray a mindset which remains within that party.

The outcome of the next election won't be bought - it will be hard won.

Sunday Independent

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

Don't Miss