Saturday 19 January 2019

Andrew Lynch: Away from the public slanging match, FG and Labour grow closer

Micheal Martin is the new Tony Blair. Reeling in the Years fans will remember a famous clip of the British prime minister arriving at the Northern Ireland peace talks in 1998 and declaring: "This is not a time for soundbites... I feel the hand of history on my shoulder!"

Now we have a Fianna Fail leader who also claims to have no interest in glib slogans before announcing "Ireland cannot afford a tug-of-war government" between high-taxing Labour and low-spending Fine Gael.

It's a good line for FF to spin, but in fact the reality is much more complicated. While the public slanging match between FG and Labour is getting increasingly ugly, in private the two parties are quietly moving their economic policies closer to each other.


There may well be a tug-of-war for power -- but Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore are doing their best to make sure that the rope doesn't break.

As usual in politics, it all comes down to numbers. Although some opinion polls are encouraging FG to dream of a single-party government, a coalition with Labour is still by far the most likely outcome.

The balance of power will be determined by how many seats each party wins, with the bigger party automatically entitled to the Taoiseach's office.

Since the opinion polls confirm that FF are still about as popular as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, the real battle in this election is between the two main Opposition parties.

That's why the mud is really starting to fly over the airwaves -- with Gilmore accusing Kenny of being "part of the Celtic-Tory consensus" and Kenny's attack dog Leo Varadkar growling: "Labour just doesn't get it on the economy."

Behind this vicious rhetoric, however, it's a very different story. Labour have quietly dropped their plans for a new 48pc income tax on anyone earning over €100,000, with Joan Burton explaining that the new Universal Social Charge has already done the job for them.

Meanwhile, FG's finance spokesman Michael Noonan has been forced to admit that tax hikes will form a bigger part of his deficit reduction plan than he previously admitted, taking up a third of his €9bn fiscal correction package instead of a quarter.

These U-turns might not seem like a big deal, but in fact they should make Kenny and Gilmore's lives a lot easier. Up until recently, their diametrically opposed positions on the old "tax increases versus spending cuts" argument was a cause for serious concern.

Now the two parties are just far enough apart to give them distinct identities -- but not so far apart that they can't hammer out a deal once the votes are counted.

FG and Labour must still tread very carefully. A new poll today shows that an overwhelming majority of voters prefer spending cuts to tax hikes, probably because they're still feeling the pain from opening their January pay packets.

This helps to explain why Noonan is way ahead of Burton as the public's choice to be the next Finance Minister, as FG constantly preach about the need to keep taxes down while Labour are terrified of alienating their supporters in the public sector.

With Enda Kenny's party maintaining a comfortable lead in the polls, an outbreak of peace on the policy front would suit him just fine.

He is even hinting that FG might have enough seats to jilt Labour at the altar and form a government with the aid of a few right-wing independent TDs.


That would be an incredibly risky move, however, since it would leave an angry Gilmore as leader of a strong opposition and itching to get his revenge at the first opportunity.

Micheal Martin will keep using his "tug-of-war government" soundbite as often as he can.

Kenny and Gilmore have to make sure that their teams don't pull too hard against each other -- because one vigorous tug on the rope could yet land them all in a heap.

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