No more "keep the recovery going," Fine Gael's new narrative ahead of Budget 2020 is "Blame Brexit"
For the last few years, Fine Gael have endeavoured tirelessly to create a narrative of keeping the recovery going. This year, the Budget comes against a very different backdrop: blame Brexit.
This morning, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe told RTÉ that the Budget for 2020 would be based on the assumption that the United Kingdom will crash out of the European Union without a deal. On the balance of play, that would seem like a sensible assumption.
As things stand, the UK will leave the EU on 31 October, three weeks after Donohoe announces the Budget on 8 October. Across the water, parliament will likely remain suspended until mid-October, so there is pretty much no chance of a deal being struck before Budget 2020.
What will this mean for the Irish public? It will certainly mean no cuts to income tax. It will certainly mean a suspension of the now annual €5 social welfare increases, which includes child benefit.
It suggests that areas of Irish life that desperately need further state investment will go neglected.
More than 10,000 people are homeless — almost 4,000 of which are children. The destruction of cultural spaces continues apace. The government, again, has missed its target on building affordable housing in 2018. Bodies on beds in hospitals have reached record numbers. The National Broadband Plan will cost us at least €3billion. More than 5,000 people are in Direct Provision — a system so dehumanising that Donald Trump would probably tweet about what a "GREAT JOB!" its doing.
Paschal Donohoe, Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael will feel deeply indebted to the way Brexit has been mishandled in Westminster if it can successfully distract us from all of that. It wouldn't be the first time.
As far back as 2017, just months into his tenure as Taoiseach, I wrote about how Brexit was helping Leo Varadkar's reputation.
His status as a punching bag for publications like The Sun and The Spectator have done nothing but helped him solidify his spot as Ireland's head of government. Every time his name is mispronounced on television, every time it's made to seem like he's the mastermind thwarting Britain's efforts to forget the backstop, he looks a little stronger in the eyes of the Irish electorate.
Indeed, compared to his counterparts in the House of Commons, Varadkar looks like a snooty maître'd in a restaurant occupied primarily by children throwing spaghetti bolognese at one another and trying to eat their soup with their arms tied behind their backs.
But frankly, looking better than the politicians in charge of Brexit is like trying to win a beauty contest against a bunch of barnyard animals. As long as you can stand on your hind legs, you should do alright.
And it's not just the decisions of politicians in the United Kingdom that have given the Fine Gael government so much room to manoeuvre. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has explicitly said that Brexit is the reason he hasn't yet pulled the plug on his party's confidence and supply arrangement with their old adversaries.
But none of this suggests that Fine Gael can be trusted when it comes to public finances, or safeguarding against the upcoming economic shock. In fact, they've repeatedly proven that they can't.
The greatest example is, surely, the National Children's Hospital, expected to cost the Irish public €2billion, a more than 300% increase on the cost at which it was approved. Or perhaps, the Public Services Card, which was recently ruled to be illegal? It's hard to imagine a stronger rebuke of a government policy than that. By 2017, it had already cost the taxpayer €54.6million. In February, Cork TD Mick Barry has noted that the contract for an events centre in Cork had overrun, from €53m to €74m.
These millions and billions add up. Fast.
Carelessness with public money is a feature of this government. A big, ugly chicken that is getting ready to come home and roost.
With less than a month to go until the budget, and less than two months until a probable no-deal, the Irish public should be braced. There will be job losses. There will be a slowdown in economic growth. There might even be a recession. When Fine Gael inevitably blames Brexit, it's important to see past that — both at Budget 2020, and during an eventual general election.
None of this is to absolve the UK government. It is their posturing, mendacity and incompetence that has both produced this mess and subsequently landed us in it. It is merely to say that Fine Gael have not done enough to protect the Irish people throughout their time in government, and it now seems likely the first downturn of their tenure will be sharply felt.
It is simply a warning. To remember that when Paschal Donohoe stands before us all on 8 October and blames Brexit for a bad news budget, which he will, that's not the whole story.
In other words: Brexit is the drunk-driver. But Fine Gael have given us a car without seat-belts.