Thursday 14 November 2019

There may be a November election but plan for February and expect it in May

Brexit will determine the precise date of a poll but Leo Varadkar is facing the most fraught period of his political career

'Twice in recent months, Leo Varadkar has opportunely asked Micheal Martin for a two-year extension, and has suggested that a date should be set now for the election in 2020.' Photo: Niall Carson/PA
'Twice in recent months, Leo Varadkar has opportunely asked Micheal Martin for a two-year extension, and has suggested that a date should be set now for the election in 2020.' Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

As soon as the Budget is out of the way on Tuesday, thoughts will immediately turn to negotiating a new confidence and supply deal and, inevitably, the prospects of a general election, which are strong.

The view in Leinster House in recent weeks is that the likelihood of an election has increased, with opinion divided mostly as to whether it will take place in the first or second quarter of the New Year.

There are several events to occur between now and year's end, and early in the New Year, which will inform that opinion, not least developments in the Brexit withdrawal agreement negotiations in the next fortnight or so, into next month.

Should we get a clear, or clearer, picture as to the outcome of that phase of the negotiations, then an election could also be expected as early as November.

But there are other events to consider, which may have an impact not only on when the election is called but also its outcome.

Before we get into some of those events, dear boy, it is worth considering opinion in Fianna Fail as to whether or not to extend the confidence and supply deal.

Twice in recent months, Leo Varadkar has opportunely asked Micheal Martin for a two-year extension, and has suggested that a date should be set now for the election in 2020.

His public calls have been rooted in a stated desire for stability around the Brexit process, that is, both the withdrawal agreement phase which is to be signed off on March 29 next year, and the new trade agreement negotiations which follow and will take up to a further two years.

In Fianna Fail, the counter argument is that there is little between the two parties on overall Brexit strategy, or certainly on the desired outcome, and that a changeover in advance of the withdrawal agreement deadline would be relatively seamless.

That's a moot point, which will become clearer this month, and in November, as the Brexit talks reach their denouement. However, the Fianna Fail view is more adamant in relation to the following two years or so, related to the negotiation of a new trade deal: in fact, the expressed Fine Gael view, that the Government must be allowed that time to participate in those trade talks, is dismissed out of hand in Fianna Fail.

As we saw during the summer, however, there is an influential view in Fianna Fail that the confidence and supply deal could be extended for a further Budget, but not two. However, there is a probably stronger view that it should not be extended at all, and that both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will have to take their chances before the electorate either in November or early in the New Year.

Within Fianna Fail, the view as to its chances in that election is not as pessimistic as the opinion polls would have you believe.

Certainly, jangling nerves were set at ease recently when the party's senior officials disclosed to TDs private opinion poll data which shows that the standing of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is far closer than the monthly media tracking polls would indicate.

The Fianna Fail analysis is that there is a large swathe of undecided voters, who could be won over either way. In other words, voters are not particularly focused now, so the next election is still to play for.

For what it's worth, I tend to believe the feedback on these private polls, and am of the view that five points, or thereabouts, separate Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in opinion poll terms, a gap which could be closed once the campaign gets under way.

So, the view in the ascendancy in the Fianna Fail parliamentary party at the moment is that the confidence and supply deal should not be extended and, should that view influence Micheal Martin, it would point towards an election in the first quarter of the New Year, probably February.

All of that, of course, is to assume that Leo Varadkar does not have his own plan of action, which we will come back to...

Within Fianna Fail, it has also been noted that Micheal Martin has recently strongly indicated his intention to continue as Fianna Fail leader after the next election, come what may, should the party improve on its national standing in the election, the point being that he is not ''afraid'' of an election.

The general view in Fianna Fail, however, which would be acceptable to a majority of the parliamentary party, is to offer to extend the current confidence and supply deal on an ad hoc basis until March 29, or after the Brexit withdrawal agreement deadline.

Either way, those who oppose a new confidence and supply deal are preparing for an election in February or alternatively in May. Indeed, the vast majority of all TDs in Leinster House, and all candidates, are planning along similar lines. It would be wise to do so.

But the question is: what is Leo Varadkar planning?

More to the point, should Micheal Martin ultimately turn down his request for an extended new two-year deal, will the Taoiseach immediately go to the country to seek a new mandate?

That is certainly a strong option for him - but would it be wise?

Talks on renewal of 'confidence and supply', or at least talks about talks, can be expected to begin shortly after the Budget this week. Indeed, there will be little surprise should Leo Varadkar make that demand on Budget day itself.

Now to those events: the Oireachtas will have to pass the finance and social welfare bills after the Budget, which is essential to give effect to Budget measures in the New Year.

Usually, the process takes several weeks, or long enough to see the Dail up to the Christmas and New Year recess.

In tandem with the passage of those bills, the business end of the Brexit withdrawal agreement process will have arrived, and the confidence and supply extension negotiations will be reaching a climax. In short, Leo Varadkar is facing the most fraught period of his political career to date.

The question is whether he would be prepared to go to the country at such a time. The possibility must be yes, but the probability is no, not least because there would be tortuous negotiations to form a new government.

There are also other events to consider: for example, it is widely expected that the INMO, nurses and midwives, will be out on industrial action also in this period; and further, that people's minds will be turned to Christmas, with even less appetite for an election.

That said, the possibility that Varadkar will call a snap election in November must still be considered relatively strong.

Whatever he decides, he will prefer to avoid an early New Year election, which would coincide with a post-Christmas slump and the by now annual chaos in hospital emergency departments, not to mention the homeless freezing on the cold streets.

No doubt, he will want to avoid being held at the mercy of Fianna Fail, with his Government on life-support until March 29, he pre-occupied with Brexit talks and his opponents all but on the hustings. No, that would not do at all.

That said, should the Brexit withdrawal agreement negotiations go well, or relatively well - we will have a clearer picture this month and next - Varadkar and Fine Gael would consider an election with some confidence, particularly during the brighter evenings at spring time.

So, all summed up, do not rule out a November election, plan for one in February but expect it to be held in April or May, probably to coincide with scheduled local and European elections next year. Super Friday, we shall call it.

Sunday Independent

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