From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar receives his Seal of Office from President Higgins in June, 2017; Derek Mooney
Enjoy it while you can. It has been over a week or so since the political commentaries have been filled with pointless stories of how Leo demands a commitment on Confidence and Supply from Micheál now or, how Micheál is not willing to let Fine Gael bounce him into agreeing something on Leo’s timeline.
While concerns over Brexit and the final negotiation of the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement have pushed the sham Confidence and Supply battle down the agenda, the “meaningful vote” on May’s deal is not due in the House of Commons for exactly two weeks (Dec 11th). Cue a return to empty political chatter on Confidence and Supply.
A few weeks back I suggested here that Fianna Fáil would do its utmost to frustrate the timeline which Leo suggested, and thus far it appears to be working. Though this presumes that the timeline being touted by Fine Gael was genuine.
Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t – but either way, it now redundant and, no matter how much FG spins to the media, it is unlikely there will be a Confidence and Supply arrangement in place this side of Christmas which, in effect, means not this side of the first week in January.
Indeed, I strongly doubt it will be in place then or any time after it.
As Fianna Fáil’s internal-irritant-in-chief, Deputy John McGuinness, said last week, there is no appetite either within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party or the wider membership for another Confidence and Supply Agreement. The arguments made in 2016 for the first deal will not hold water in early 2019. The confused and unclear mandate the voters gave in 2016 has been honoured to the furthest reasonable extent possible.
We now see that the Dáil can operate the “new politics” scenario of the government not having complete control of the parliamentary agenda.
Having an election in early 2019 will not be viewed as a failure of politics, but rather an acknowledgement that the time has come for a government with a clear mandate, a refreshed platform and – hopefully – the will to actually govern rather than merely spinning about governing.
The notion that the voters will punish the party that precipitates an election is a nonsense. That “rule”, in so much as it is a rule at all, applies to unnecessary ones – elections triggered purely to gain party political advantage.
The voters do not fear an election about real issues: housing, generation rent and health. Political rows about who caused the election will be dead within two or three days of the campaign starting.
Though An Taoiseach publicly declares his wish, nay his desire, to see the current arrangement continue with a second Confidence and Supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil until the summer of 2020, no one thinks this is his real ambition.
They think the offer of a Summer 2020 election is a ruse, a bluff. Then why doesn’t Fianna Fáil call this bluff? To an extent they did. They counter offered a non-aggression pact until after March 2019, when the UK Brexits. It was rejected out of hand by Varadkar. But then, why play the game by Leo’s rules at all?
Varadkar wants an election as soon as possible as he is even more frustrated by the current set-up than the bulk of Fianna Fáil TDs. Whatever difficulties the Fianna Fáilers might endure, they are at least spared the presence of Shane Ross in their midst.
What if the next election sees Leo do well, but not well enough? What happens if Fine Gael get a dozen or so extra seats, but they at the expense of old or potential new allies? What if their only viable partner after an election is Sinn Féin?
Have no doubt, Leo will merrily lead Fine Gael into Cabinet along with Mary Lou and Sinn Féin. Fine Gael TDs may rightly assume that they will run as many rings around the Shinners down here as the DUP did in Stormont pre-January 2017, but will the traditional Fine Gael core vote, especially the rural one, be quite as a phlegmatic?
Leo will be content to let his successor worry about that problem, or should I say the fallout from that problem, in a few years’ time. His task is to get back in government and to continue in office.
Leo is a political risk taker, not in terms of policy, but in terms of political power play. He is willing to take chances and to play the political odds. It is how he has come so far, so fast. And it is how he plans to go further.
Being Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael is not his endgame. For Leo the next election is just another calculated rung on his climb to higher things on an international stage. But to get there, he must first win the next election.
This should make Leo the precise opposite of Micheál Martin, but that may be where the commentariat are about to misjudge the Corkman.
While cautiousness and predictability have been his watchwords for most of his career, Martin knows that the next election is make or break, even if others do not have high expectations for him.
Being Taoiseach is Martin’s endgame and this is as close as he has ever been or will ever be again to that goal. Though he may talk about staying around as party leader after another defeat, he knows that is not a realistic proposal.
This is not a negative. This is the impetus that will enable Martin to go for broke. To leave it all out on the field of play. There is no point in him holding something back for the next game. If he doesn’t win this one, there won’t be another one.
The traditional read of Martin suggests that it is this very dynamic which will tempt Martin to hold back, to take Varadkar’s 2020 election offer at face value, to do another Confidence and Supply deal and to live and fight another day.
I think this is the wrong read at this particular time.
When they had their close call over Frances Fitzgerald last year Martin and Varadkar got to see each other up-close, but it appears that it was Martin who took away the better insight into his rival. Martin realised that despite Leo’s advantages, despite all the spin and bluster of his strategic communications, he is beatable.
As with Leo, there is nothing substantial for Martin to gain from another Confidence and Supply deal. Both men are happy to take their case to the country and both are all but ready for that.
What we are seeing now is not a quarrel over doing or not doing a deal, it is two leaderships deciding separately whether it suits them better to have polling day in February, March, April or May 2019. I still back February.
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