Saturday 19 January 2019

Early election would be a big risk for Leo

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets members of the PSNI and Garda representative of the Gay community as he arrives for a Gay Pride breakfast meeting at the Northern Whig bar in Belfast
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets members of the PSNI and Garda representative of the Gay community as he arrives for a Gay Pride breakfast meeting at the Northern Whig bar in Belfast

Leo Varadkar is going into battle. To put it a little less dramatically, the Taoiseach has been busy assembling a "war council" within Fine Gael, made up of selected ministers and senior officials.

Its mission is very clear - to get the party ready for an early general election next spring and win a mandate for Leo to govern in his own right.

Why has Varadkar apparently got such an itchy trigger finger? After all, Fine Gael's "confidence and supply" deal with Fianna Fail is supposed to last for three budgets, which would take us up to October 2018.

The simple answer is that Leo despises the minority government arrangement which he inherited from Enda Kenny - and sees a snap election as his best chance to get this "new politics" monkey off his back.

Some observers have been surprised by the lack of new policy announcements during Varadkar's first 50 days. According to the advisers he relies on most, however, this is all part of the plan.

They are happy for him to settle in with a few soft-focus photo opportunities, allowing voters to savour the novelty value of having a gay, mixed-race Taoiseach, aged under 40.

When Dail Eireann resumes next month, however, his leadership will take on a much harder edge. The first item on his to-do list is October's Budget, expected to cut income tax and establish him as a champion of Ireland's squeezed middle.

Shortly after that comes Fine Gael's annual conference in November, where he intends to draw a line under the Enda era and spell out his personal vision for the years ahead.

If opinion polls show that voters still like what they see, then Leo might well take the plunge soon after Christmas - by declaring that "new politics" just hasn't worked and asking President Michael D Higgins for a dissolution of the Dail.


Of course, the argument against a snap election can be summed up in two words: Theresa May.

The British Prime Minister destroyed her "strong and stable" image when she went to the country three years ahead of schedule and is now effectively a dead woman walking.

May's dramatic transformation from hero to zero underlines an important political lesson - voters tend to react badly if they think a contest has been cynically called in the leader's personal interests and not their own.

Some strategists in Government Buildings think Varadkar should be able to get around this little problem.

They point out that he is a far more charismatic campaigner than May, who might have got away with her gamble had she not turned out to be so robotic on the stump.

They also claim that the Fine Gael-Independent Alliance coalition was always just a stop-gap solution to last year's indecisive election result - which means people will quite understand if the new Taoiseach quickly puts it out of its misery.

If anybody can make this argument sound convincing, Leo is probably the man. His visit to Belfast last Friday was yet another PR triumph, establishing himself once again as the smoothest talker in Irish politics.

Not only did he sound calm, mature and constructive while presenting some practical solutions to the Brexit Border crisis - he also made some of his more hysterical unionist critics look small by comparison.

Needless to say, Fianna Fail has a very different take on Leo's election plans. They like to quote Barack Obama's observation that voters always want "that new car smell", which may be seductive but only lingers in the nostrils for a few weeks at most.

In other words, Fianna Fail sees Varadkar as a sleek and shiny automobile, fresh from the showroom - still smelling great but in reality losing value every minute.

Fianna Fail also has its campaign message pretty well worked out already. If Ireland's economy is recovering as strongly as the Government claims, why do young adults find it so hard to attain basic life goals such as buying a house, rearing children and accessing decent healthcare for their families?

Perhaps the most striking result from last month's Census results was that almost 460,000 people over the age of 18 are still living with their parents - most of them presumably for financial reasons.

This is why the Taoiseach must not get too carried away by his early successes, which have largely been about style rather than substance.

Setting up a Fine Gael war council is quite sensible, if only as a precaution in case of sudden accidents.

Instead of obsessing over an early election, however, he should take the old-fashioned view that his best chance of winning a second term is to just do a really good job.

Nobody has ever got rich by betting against Leo Varadkar. Will he still be able to make the same boast this time next year?

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