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How can Fine Gael and Labour reconcile gap in their policies?

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore find themselves in a very strange position.

The FG and Labour leaders know that as long as they avoid falling under a bus this Christmas, they will be running the country by next spring at the very latest. What they don't know is how they are going to reconcile the glaring gaps in their economic policies -- or whether they will even have any freedom at all once the IMF have checked out of the Merrion Hotel.

The opposition's response to the four-year plan has been distinctly muted.

Naturally enough, FG and Labour want to hammer the Government for the savage cuts and punitive taxes that will devastate the country between now and 2014.


At the same time, they privately accept that most of those harsh measures are unavoidable -- which is why they are being so deliberately vague about whether they will implement the plan themselves when they get their feet under the cabinet table. Enda Kenny solemnly declares that he has spoken to the EU and got their reassurance that individual elements of the document can be renegotiated by a new Government. What he doesn't mention is that if any of the cuts or taxes are reversed, the same amount of money will have to be found somewhere else. Labour's would-be finance minister Joan Burton says that she "would certainly like" to restore the minimum wage, but that's a long way short of a promise.

For now, the big decision that FG and Labour must make is how to approach the upcoming Budget.

With independent TDs Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae indicating that they might perform U-turns and support it after all, the Government may have just enough votes to carry the day on December 7. Even so, the Dail arithmetic remains desperately tight -- and if there's any uncertainty at all, FG in particular will come under huge pressure to help it through. For all their huffing and puffing, FG and Labour want this Budget passed as much as anyone.

It suits them perfectly to let Fianna Fail and the Greens take all the blame, begin drawing up a programme for government over Christmas and then fight the election in February or March. The two opposition parties remain on course for victory, but never will it have tasted so sweet and sour at the same time.

Kenny and Gilmore must both tread very carefully.

One of them is going to be the next Taoiseach -- and the voters are about to give them the biggest job interview of their lives.