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Irish Politics

Might Leo be tempted to go to the country on the 26th October?

With an impending presidential election on Friday 26th October, a very real question arises as to whether Leo Varadkar might be tempted to seek an early  dissolution of the 32nd Dáil.

There are many reasons why some think he might be tempted to do so.

Firstly, the economy is doing well. Unemployment is low; employment is at record levels. The cranes are on the sky-line. The exchequer is close to running a surplus next year.

Secondly, it is unlikely that there will be any seismic shocks in relation to Brexit or to the international global economic order in the next eight weeks.

Thirdly, he personally is having a good press and his standing in the polls is very healthy. He had a good papal visit.

Fourthly, the public haven’t really focussed on the fairly abysmal record of his government on health and housing reform – both of which could get very difficult to manage in the coming winter season with trolley crises, spiralling rents and homeless on freezing streets.

Fifthly, the decisive outcome of the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment gives him cover to postpone the enabling legislation until after an early election. A protracted divisive Dáil debate on such legislation might inflame the No voters’ resentment and exacerbate Church-State tensions.

Sixthly, he can avoid the looming property tax furore by going to the people before they realise that the boom in house prices is going to hit them very hard in their pockets.

Is there reason to believe that his prospects are going to be better in a year’s time?

So what could possibly go wrong if he asked Michael D to let him have a general election to coincide with his own bid for re-election?

Michael D would probably privately welcome a pre-election period in which the entire focus was  on party political issues and in which he had the support of the major political parties.

The only real issue is that of pretext.

Most people do not want an election now, especially when there is in place a confidence and supply agreement for another budget and there is no sign of Fianna Fáil pulling the plug on the Varadkar  cabinet.

Any public sense that the Taoiseach was being smart or politically opportunistic in staging an unprovoked repudiation of the three budget deal with Fianna Fáil could well blow up in Leo’s face.

His carefully cultivated nice-guy image could suffer very badly if the voters thought he was pulling a fast one and cynically double-crossing Micheál Martin - who has honourably delivered on the deal that Fianna Fáil made have bravely stuck by.

Fine Gael is now so long on the moral high ground that some of its strategists are suffering from altitude sickness.

Theresa May learned the hard way that running to the country to exploit the weakness of the opposition in breach of a commitment not to call a snap election can have shocking political consequences. Leo should keep a photo of Theresa on his desk in Merrion Street just to remind him that unjustified runs to the country can backfire very badly.

At this point it is easy to envisage that Fine Gael might only pick up 4 or 5 seats, mainly at the expense of independents and minor parties, leaving them with the unenviable task of putting together a Dáil majority requiring over twenty allies. If they got to 58 – a good performance – they would still need 24 supporters.

Let us be very clear on one thing. Fianna Fáil will not be offering a second confidence and supply agreement no matter how they fare in an early election – especially one called as a snap election in breach of the existing agreement – and no matter who is leading them..

As things stand, it doesn’t look as it Labour is going to gain any seats and they might well come back with five or less seats.

Fianna Fáil might well come back with 50 seats; Fine Gael with 56.

That could mean that Sinn Féin would be in a position to offer a coalition to either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. Such a coalition would be able to secure a working majority with ease.

The sense that Leo had needlessly risked bringing Sinn Féin into the position of king-maker could turn off a lot of traditional FG voters and would justify the election of independent candidates committed to keeping Sinn Féin out of government.

The alternative would be a grand FF-FG coalition which neither party would want and which would entail the loss of three or four cabinet posts for FG, as well as long term damage for one or both of the civil war parties.

So, even on a good day and even with a fair wind behind him, Leo would want to think long and hard about the possibility of becoming Ireland’s shortest term Taoiseach in the next two months.

A mediocre or bad result at the hands of an electorate which resented an uncalled-for snap election could land Leo in the soup and be seen as being all his own fault.

Either way, a snap election is not all that attractive prospect when you do a bit of political tyre-kicking.

As for the Independent Alliance, the outcome could also be disastrous. Losing office and their present position of leverage would be very hard for them to take. None of them is guaranteed re-election. Even Dublin Rathdown has a habit of abandoning its poll-toppers at the following election.

And even if the support of some independents were needed to form a new government, there is absolutely no reason to believe that those re-elected as independents would be happy to give the existing ministers their seats back at the cabinet table. Other independents might like a turn on the roundabout. And both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael might be vey glad to see the back of you-know-who.

For all these reasons, Leo has much cause for hesitation. Seeking his own mandate as Taoiseach is attractive; failing to get it because of his own misjudgement and miscalculation would be a terrible political nemesis.

Unless a really plausible pretext for an election presents itself in the coming weeks, he could well be portrayed as running away from his responsibilities. And even then nothing short of a stunning victory guarantees his re-election as Taoiseach.

Micheál Martin has cleverly avoided giving Leo a pretext to tear up the supply and confidence agreement. Sinn Féin motions of no-confidence in Eoghan Murphy won’t tempt FF into accepting the snap election bait.

Brexit doesn’t offer such a pretext either. Nor does the shameful impasse in the North.

So there is some food for thought for Fine Gael strategists.

Constituency opinion polls are notoriously unreliable, as I well know having topped the poll once despite having been shown losing badly in a Primetime poll eight week before.

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