Speculation has moved swiftly from the content of the budget to the date of the election

It is the Budget that once again shows that almost all political punditry and prediction is wrong.

Back in 2016, when Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Independents agreed the novel arrangement that allowed this Government to be formed, we were warned it wouldn’t last.  The confidence and supply agreement was struck for three Budgets, but many said we would be lucky to get more than one Budget out of it. But here we are, the third budget has been announced, and advisors from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are preparing papers and documents for discussions on an extension to the agreement.

The political speculation again is on whether we could have a general election very soon. It is possible – though it doesn’t seem likely – that the Taoiseach could seek to go the polls before Christmas, before the annual winter consequences of the health and housing problems begin to dominate media and political discourse completely. Others speculate that it could come in Spring, after Brexit – which is to make the risky assumption that political reality won’t make the Brexit timetable change. And others wonder are there good odds to be got on betting not on a fourth but a fifth budget out of this arrangement, which seems unlikely but so do many things in politics until they happen.

The Budget itself is not easy to pigeon-hole politically. Some members of the Opposition sought yesterday to characterise it as a right wing “landlords’ budget”.  Minister Paschal Donohoe has written and spoken in a number of forums recently about rejuvenating what he calls the political centre.  A budget which has at its heart State incentives for the private sector to provide housing, and also significant increases in state spending notably on health, fits the centrist approach Donohoe talks about.

Health and housing are the two political issues that make Fine Gael Ministers fear for their future, despite their party’s consistently good opinion poll numbers.  As we enter yet another winter without these issues resolved, Fine Gael strategists fear that the annual coverage of human stories arising from overcrowded A&Es and hospital waiting lists will negate any kudos the Government will get from the €1 bn euro increase in health spending to €17 bn. And similarly, as the physical dangers of street homelessness grow with colder weather, further tragedies may well come. Houses are being built, but too slowly. Many families remain in deeply inadequate accommodation, and some have none at all. 

Unsurprisingly, it is rumoured regularly that the Ministers for Health and for Housing, Simon Harris and Eoghan Murphy, are among those most keen on an early election.  They feel that talk of the economic recovery will not go very far with the public against a backdrop of constant media coverage and discussion of these policy failures which Harris and Murphy inherited when they took office, and may leave behind when they finish their stints in those particular government departments.

The Fianna Fáil view is the mirror image of this one:  They see their current opinion poll numbers offering little prospect of electoral gain over their 2016 election result.  But they see that a difficult winter could dent Fine Gael’s superiority, and therefore would like to close off the prospect of an election this side of Spring 2019.

So, it was notable that within a couple of hours of yesterday’s budget announcement, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin were on the phone to each other having a conversation about the possibility of a new deal. Both were keen to make clear that they saw the conversation as “pleasant”. In effect each is saying that if these talks don’t work, it’s not my side that is causing any problems.

Micheál Martin then said last night that Fianna Fáil’s support was not just until yesterday’s budget, but continues as far as the passage of the Finance Bill in December. The translation of this being that Fine Gael cannot claim their deal has broken down until then, and that is too late for a 2018 election. 

Leo Varadkar caused some surprise by saying he would like a deal to be done before the end of the Oireachtas Halloween break.  This of course would give him plenty of time to say that unfortunately no deal could be reached and that in the interests of the country an election is required.

In truth, nobody knows the Taoiseach’s mind on this.  A special EU Summit on Brexit is due on November 17th and 18th.  Having the Taoiseach and his Ministers distracted by a general election campaign during this period would not be ideal.

But there is one more possibility.  In the run up to the Brexit Summit, the Taoiseach and his Ministers will be to the fore more than ever, defending the national interest against a Britain which has few European friends.  This period will culminate in a Fine Gael Ard Fheis on Friday November 16th and Saturday 17th, following which the Taoiseach and several Ministers will rush to Brussels to fly the flag at this crucial meeting.

The Taoiseach and Fine Gael may have no higher point during their entire term in Government.  Dissolving the Dáil in the few days after a successful Ard Fheis and European summit would allow for an election to be squeezed in before Christmas on December 7th or 14th.  Which as it happens would be just after the now fully restored Christmas social welfare benefit is paid. To those who say this is too close to Christmas, remember that December 14th will be 100 years to the very day since the 1918 General Election, which changed the course of Irish history. 

On balance, one would have to say the timing is very tight, and that we will enter 2019 at least before we see a General Election.  But at the outset we noted that almost all political punditry and prediction was wrong in 2016.  This remains the case in 2018.

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