Lenihan has given us all a good whack with his axe
BRIAN LENIHAN has taken his last swing of the axe.
Budget 2011 may have been the most savage in the history of the State, but in some ways it was also the most politically smart.
By giving almost everyone a good whack, the Government has left no obvious focal point for the opposition – which is why Fine Gael and Labour will be quietly happy to let this pass and save their ammunition for the General Election.
Just like Goldilocks when she broke into the bears’ house, Lenihan took three attempts to get things just right.
In 2008 he infuriated pensioners by taking away their automatic right to a medical card, leading to massive street protests and a humiliating climbdown within 48 hours. In 2009 he forced public sector workers to take a massive pay cut and left private workers relatively unscathed.
This time the IMF left him with no choice but to dip his hand into just about everybody’s pocket, which in a strange way has left the country feeling that at least we really are all in this together.
Despite some clever spinning about a possible cut in the old age pension, the elderly are actually the only people who have managed to escape with relatively little pain. This is hardly a coincidence, since Fianna Fail have targeted the over- 65s as the one remaining section of society who might actually give them a few votes in the coming election. Grey power is alive and well – but it remains to be seen whether or not they will show FF their gratitude at the ballot box.
Some of Lenihan’s cuts are certainly on the mean side. It is particularly sad to see money being taken from carers, widows and the blind, since they are the people who are least able to stand up for themselves.
However, the cold, hard reality is that the Government had to do whatever it took to reach its €6bn target – and in this it looks as if they succeeded.
Although the protesters banging pots and pans outside Leinster House yesterday certainly made plenty of noise, Fianna Fail TDs were privately happy to see that their numbers were relatively small.
Inside the Dail, meanwhile, Fine Gael and Labour were distinctly subdued.
Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore know that the economic mess will be their problem very soon – and they’re increasingly wary of making promises that they know the EU will not allow them to keep. Now that Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae have got off the fence, there is little doubt that this Budget will pass and the election will be held in February.
When the campaign begins, the big question will be whether Kenny or Gilmore gets the keys to the Taoiseach’s office.
Given that the economy is now more important than every other issue combined, however, there’s another crucial question to be answered – who will be the next Minister for Finance?
Michael Noonan has now given FG’s Budget response an incredible 11 times but never actually had the chance to deliver a Budget of his own. Since he now resembles an undertaker with a sideline in stand-up comedy, he may not be the man to lift the nation’s spirits.
Joan Burton knows that she made a bad mistake when she described the country as “banjaxed” on the night of the EU/IMF bailout. The fact remains that Labour will need a more positive message than that if they’re to capitalise on their current opinion poll ratings.
One possibility being discussed at the highest levels is to give the job to Pat Rabbitte. The former Labour leader is still highly ambitious, loves economics – and, most importantly, has the intimidating presence required to scare off any unreasonable spending requests.
As the Four Year Plan confirmed, whoever gets to read out next December’s Budget will be doing it while trapped in an incredibly tight straitjacket. Michael Noonan described yesterday’s effort as the final act of a puppet government, but he must know that the EU would be only too happy to pull his strings as well. The opposition’s biggest challenge in the election campaign is to give voters some sense of hope – no easy task when the Government has just handed over so much of our economic independence.
Budget 2011 is the last sting from a dying wasp. The pain is not going to go away soon.