From top: Fine Gael Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick, canvassing in Dundalk with Enda Kenny in 2011, has resigned from the party and intends to run in the next General Election as an independent candidate; Derek Mooney
The news last night that one of the two Fine Gael T.D.s for Louth will henceforth be the Independent TD for Louth will gladden the hearts of very few in Fine Gael, not even the Dundalk Cllr selected only a few nights ago to replace him.
While Peter Fitzpatrick may not have been of much strategic importance to the Taoiseach while he was an FG backbencher, he has improved his status now as an Independent – especially one whose support for the budget seems to be conditional.
Fitzpatrick’s withdrawal of support for Varadkar’s minority government comes barely a week after another old school Fine Gael TD and Junior Minister, Catherine Byrne TD, put a shot across the bows of both the Taoiseach and his beleaguered Housing Minister.
If long(ish) serving members of the Leo Varadkar’s own parliamentary party are having public misgivings about this government’s future, then why would Varadkar seriously expect the main opposition party to rush to commit to extend its Confidence and Supply (C&S) agreement for another year, once the Budget speech is done?
The question is rhetorical as that probably is what he does expect. It is what he has been preparing himself and us. Over the summer we saw Varadkar writing lengthy homilies, in the guise of letters, at the Leader of Fianna Fáil like a latter-day St Paul writing to the Ephesians.
Ostensibly, the purpose of these letters from St Leo to the Corkonian was to pressure the Fianna Fáil leader into an early start, ahead of the Budget, on talks on a C&S extension.
In reality, many in Fianna Fáil, especially its Justice spokesperson, Jim O’Callaghan, saw it as the Taoiseach orchestrating a mechanism to get out of the C&S deal by pulling the plug, going for a snap election in October or November and blaming Martin for causing uncertainty in the process.
Unlike the Ephesians who – according to the old Frank Cluskey anecdote – never effin’ wrote back, Martin did write back.
He made it clear that he was not going to bring the C&S review date forward and that nothing could or would happen before the Budget.
He was right. He knew, as does Varadkar, that the existing Confidence and Supply agreement addresses the issue of its own renewal/review. On page 2 it clearly states:
It is agreed that both parties to this agreement will review this Framework Arrangement at the end of 2018.
October is clearly not the end of 2018.
To be fair, no one expects the process to wait until St Stephen’s Day or even New Year’s Eve, so it is not unreasonable to suggest that the review and any talks commence sometime in the middle of November… unless of course that is too late in the calendar to allow the Taoiseach to have the election that some of his Ministers are apparently urging him to have?
Which brings us back to yesterday’s Fine Gael defection. Does the loss of Peter Fitzpatrick change the Taoiseach’s calculations?
The next few weeks were already going to be very interesting, even before Fitzpatrick left. It is possible that his departure may have no effect. But it is also possible that this unforeseen event causes the calmer and less capricious of the Taoiseach’s consiglieri to urge him to think again.
So, let me posit the following scenario. I do not offer just as a Euro-store Nostradamus, but rather an exercise in walking my political wits and seeing where that might lead us.
Let’s assume that Varadkar and his advisers take 4 or 5 days to assess reaction to the Budget. Barring a big controversy, on Sunday Oct 14th Varadkar gets out his big quill pen and writes another very public missive to Martin.
This one states that Fine Gael is not willing to wait until November to start talks on a possible extension to the C&S deal and that they want to start talks immediately, within the week.
It recycles the line from the September 4th letter which asserts that: “the government cannot function properly if it does not know if it will last from week to week, month to month”. He invites Martin to respond ASAP.
Martin doesn’t waste any time. He gets out his Bic biro and reminds Leo of the C&S agreement timeline which also states that the two “parties to this agreement will review this Framework Arrangement”, but that this does not mean that they need necessarily do it together or right now.
He then suggests that each party needs to do an audit of progress on the 42 policy specifics in the old C&S agreement and that they each need to prepare material on that before sitting down together.
He again commits Fianna Fáil to honouring the spirit of the C&S agreement in the interim and assures the Taoiseach that Fianna Fáil will facilitate the passage of the Finance and Social Welfare Bills.
He adds an important codicil however, saying that this presumes that Leo can still get the Fine Gael and Independent votes needed to pass them without Fianna Fail’s help. As with Varadkar, he sends his reply back via Social Media, rather than by a Courier or An Post.
This leaves Varadkar with a dilemma.
If Leo’s goal is really to break free from Fianna Fáil and C&S, he then needs to fire back that he has already waited a month since September 4th.
He plays the Brexit card, insisting that he needs an answer now, not in November, and says that he will have no alternative but to call an election which the public will, he asserts, blame entirely on Martin.
This, however, is a big if. What if Varadkar is not so sure? What if his inner Gordon Brown (something I written about here before) comes to the fore and indecision and an excess of cautiousness causes him to delay the election?
If that happens and Varadkar agrees to Martin’s timeline, which is also the one specified in the C&S agreement, then the final decision on whether there is a C&S extension might not be resolved until next January.
At that point Fianna Fáil could conclude that the conditions (particularly a weakened FG leader who was ready to agree to a range of FF proposals) which helped lead to the first C&S agreement, no longer prevail.
They may further reckon that the public could quickly adjust to the idea of an election, especially one that is held well before the UK leaves the EU at the end of March and is fought on housing, healthcare and law and order.
This could be a good time to go and check the odds on a February 2019 general election.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney