From top: Fine Gael’s Minister of State for Local Government and Planning Peter Burke (right) with Minister for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe during the 2020 General Election; Derek Mooney
In politics, the things you don’t say, or hesitate over saying, can say more about what you are really thinking than the things you do say. You can hear a near textbook perfect example in this short clip from a BBC Radio Devon interview with local Tory MP, Simon Jupp.
Asked if he thinks Boris Johnson will still be Prime Minister and Tory Leader this time next month, Jupp – a former BBC journalist and senior Tory party communications adviser – responds with… nothing. There are three or four seconds of silence, before he finally struggles to say he probably will.
Setting aside the schadenfreude of hearing a former press officer who may in his time have scolded ministers on their dire media outings, delivering an even worse one, Jupp’s performance highlighted the scale of the peril facing Johnson.
Though he now holds what was once a safe Tory seat, Jupp was still a beneficiary of the Boris bounce in 2019 and is one of the new in-take of MPs, whose personal loyalty to Boris would be presumed. Incorrectly, it seems.
That said, Jupp may well be right. Though Johnson is clearly damaged goods and a potential liability to the Tory party, he will probably limp through the coming month, and several months after that, before the 54 letters needed to trigger a no-confidence motion are submitted to the famous 1922 Tory Backbench committee.
It is being suggested that early May could provide such a trigger point with Local elections due on May 5th in London, parts of England, and all of Wales and Scotland. This may also be the date of the Northern Ireland Assembly election, but given the febrile state of politics at Stormont, and the clear willingness of Johnson’s government to do anything it can to halt the DUP’s electoral decline: RTÉ news: Plans for temporary return of ‘double-jobbing’ for NI politicians condemned who can say for certain?
Heavy Tory losses in those UK Local Elections would send any wavering MPs who were clinging to the forlorn hope that Johnson might still be an election winner, scurrying to grab their pens and submit their letters demanding a heave, or as it’s known in Australia, a Spill (Can we start a campaign to get using the term Spill here?).
Even at the best of political times, council/local elections held at the mid-point of a government term can be a problem. Though political scientists class council/local and European elections as second-order elections as voters view them as less important, it is this “less at stake” attitude that makes them potential career enders for national politicians as voters use their ballot, more often than not, to punish the governing parties.
For most governments the midpoint also marks its polling lowest point. Positive outcomes of promises made at the last general election have yet to be felt, while the less pleasant impacts of tough decisions taken early-on are still biting.
It’s a universal political truism… well… it is in the places that practise liberal democracy. Thus “second order” elections are defined as having three classic characteristics:
- Lower turnouts (than for national parliamentary elections).
- Losses for the national governing parties
- Larger parties do worse. Smaller parties do better
The forthcoming May elections would have been a big political test for Boris Johnson’s relationship with the British voting public without the almost daily revelations of rule breaking, partying and hypocrisy at Number 10. With them, it is hard to see how he survives much beyond the May results.
Meanwhile, though faced with their own respective travails here, Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin and Eamon can all heave (not in the Spill sense) a sigh of relief that there are neither Local nor European Elections scheduled here until May 2024.
Or can they?
The former Labour British Home Secretary, Jack Straw once infamously said of his department that it was a place where many industrious civil servants were quietly working away on projects that could destroy a minister’s career at any moment.
The project that could end the electoral peace that Varadkar, Martin and Ryan are hoping will continue through 2022, and to 2024, is not that secret. Even more ominously, the one working industriously on its delivery is not a civil servant, it is a giver minister… well a Junior Minister.
That Junior Minister is Fine Gael’s Peter Burke, and the project is not some pet plan of his, but rather a firm commitment agreed by all three leaders and included on page 118 of the 2020 Programme for Government, Our Shared Future:
‘We will pass legislation to allow the first directly elected mayor in Limerick to be elected in 2021. We will support the first directly elected mayor with a financial package to deliver upon their mandate.’
It is not the Junior Minister’s fault that the 2021 target has been missed. To be fair to almost all concerned, there is an acceptance that it would have been difficult to organise and hold an election during a pandemic. But on the flip side there is concern in Limerick that it is now 1000 days since the people of Limerick voted to create the position of directly elected mayor. The election of Mayor is not much closer to reality now than it was in 2019, 2020 or 2021.
Again, this is not the Junior Minister’s fault. It is only nine months since he announced that the cabinet had given approval to drafting the necessary legislation. It is just three months since he told a local Limerick paper that he hoped the election “would take place by next Summer”.
And it is just a week since he went on to tell the Irish Examiner that he was taking the recommendations made during the pre-legislative scrutiny report released by the Joint Oireachtas Committee and ensuring that “the role will have ‘real power’ when its first holder is elected sometime later this year.”
So, can we be certain there will be an election for a directly election mayor of Limerick during the mid-point of this government and in the run-up to its revolving Taoiseach turning point?
I somehow doubt it.
The main party leaders, and their pollsters, will be very reluctant to press ahead with a mid-point, second order election that could see candidates from the three government parties not just defeated, but badly so. Imagine the deep political problems or awkward leadership questions that could follow a Limerick election result where the Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil candidate came fourth… or worse? I am assuming here that both parties would field their own candidates. It’s a normal assumption, as having one of the parties opting out, or to propose a joint voting pact would raise questions whose consequences were even worse than coming a poor third.
As I have explained here before, I am not totally opposed to the directly elected mayor model, except where it involves an area that hold almost a third of the State’s population. Having a directly Mayor for the greater Dublin area raises major issues of scale.
But while the citizens of Cork and Waterford voted narrowly not to have a directly elected mayor, the people of Limerick voted for it – and their wishes must be respected. This is the point made by such prominent Limerick figures as the former Department of Finance Secretary General, John Moran.
Just before Christmas, he posted concerns online about “…some even suggesting it might have to wait another 1,000 days at least – 6 full years” a reference to some whispers that the election could be postponed further to coincide with the 2024 local elections, to make the term of office of mayor and Council coterminous.
I have no idea if this is a serious risk. If it is then then its advocates will need to take a bottle of Tippex to the Programme For Government and a restraint for Peter Burke, who has bravely staked his political fortunes on delivering this project.
In the meantime, one way to determine if the government parties are serious about holding this election (be that immediately before or after the Summer), is to see if they start making the necessary political preparations, particularly the selection of candidates, anytime soon. We have to assume that they will want their challengers’ names in the field at least a few months in advance.
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 Monday. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney