In the knowledge it’s a little vulgar for first thing Monday morning, we still couldn’t resist distorting the famous Mae West line to describe the amazing conversion that happened Fianna Fail this weekend:“Is that a gavel in your pocket and are you just happy to see me?”
For having spent many weeks slating the opposition for getting involved in irresponsible ‘auction politics’ and out-vying each other on tax cuts, Fianna Fail this week decided that the best way of beating them was to get in on the act.
Drawing to the close of a humdrum Ard Fheis in City West this weekend– with the exception of Brian Cowen’s majestic demolition of Fine Gael’s tax proposals – Bertie
Ahern stood up on the podium on Saturday night and electrified the weekend with an unusual – nay, extraordinary – leader’s speech.
It was a baffling kind of affair, going against the grain of everything we had been expecting all week. On Tuesday, Social Affairs Minister Seamus Brennan had launched the ‘clár’ for the Ard Fheis and also took the opportunity to flay the opposition with some hard ‘timber’ for their irresponsible spending policies.
“Fine Gael and Labour have been making commitments now for over two years in the Dail and in policy documents. They add up to a frightening amount of money. It’s not a competition we are interested in entering,” he proclaimed.
Well within four days the Fianna Fail star players had entered the fray. And in 30 minutes, Bertie Ahern had managed the amazing feat of making more new promises and commitment than the combined opposition had made in two years.
There were some pundits (including this one) who were made to look foolish by Ahern’s speech, having confidently predicted that there would be nothing new or substantial in his speech in terms of promises. Ministers would consistently tell you that they would continue in Government mode (ie running the country) for as long as possible and that the party’s policies and manifesto would appear only after Easter. Until yesterday morning, when ministers started dropping big hints into their own speeches, there was no general inkling that it was going to take place.
So what happened? Had we been given a bum steer? Had those clever backroom wonks in Fianna Fail managed to keep it all strictly confidential to be gloriously revealed by Ahern on Saturday night?
Erm, no. The first hint was on Saturday evening. Usually, the script of the leader’s speech is released under embargo in late afternoon to allow TV, radio and Sunday newspapers to absorb it. But for once, the script was late, not arriving until after 6pm. This suggested that late amendments had been added.
And later that night a member of the Cabinet told me that none of the proposals to cut rates of tax and PRSI were in the original speech. Yes, the Minister said, there were a couple of sweeteners in the speech. But the decision to include the kitchen sink and all was taken at a very very late stage.
And the reason for that? Nerves verging on panic. Ahern himself had always spoken about Easter as being the natural starting point for the campaign. But what he read on Saturday night was, to all intents and purposes, the party’s manifesto masquerading as a leader’s speech.
The decision to shunt everything forward, according to the senior minister, was made on the back of two opinion polls that spelt bad news for Fianna Fail this week.
The first in the Star on Thursday showed the party at 32% in Dublin, support levels that would invariably lead to the party losing seats. And then yesterday, the Sunday Business Post’s latest monthly tracking poll showed marginal slippage for FF for the second successive month. Given that the party’s support levels were consistently in the 40s in the run-up to the 2002 election, this gave Ahern some cause for concern.
Hence, the front-loading of all its best goodies and the decision to start now, not at Easter. And in his interview with RTE Radio’s ‘This Week’ yesterday Ahern gave credence to this when accepting that his party were lagging behind the others.
“When you are in government for a decade, it’s just that bit harder. The polls are very interesting if you look back over the past 15 months.
“There has been a swing of about four times of us being up five and being back down five. I accept that we are down in the opinion polls even though there are on a small basis.”
Well, there are two reactions to panic – fight or flight.
And certainly Ahern’s instincts on Saturday were all fight. His leader’s address was the best he has made in a couple of years, helped by the fact that he was talking in simple language about tangible things and not about concepts.
Promises came faster than bids at a charity auction. No sooner had Ahern hit the gavel on a new promise, than another one had materialised. The policies seemed to poach bits out of other party policies with a couple of novel ideas of FF’s own making. The elimination of the ceiling on PRSI will be popular as will the halving of rates, and the dropping of tax rates
It was getting harder to keep up with the pace of Bertie’s speech, as the promises stacked up. Increasing tax bands; rises tax credits in line with wage inflation; the State pension to be increased from E200 to E300 over five years; outflanking Fine Gael on tough cop stuff with promises of mandatory jail terms for unprovoked assaults, CCTV cameras everywhere and compulsory drugs tests in prisons. More cops. Step-down beds. More teachers. Cafes for teenagers. It went on and on.
But when you start looking at how much all this is going to cost, Fianna Fail’s earlier claims of auction politics begins to look very hollow indeed. After the speech, senior ministers argued that these promises weren’t part of the auction because they were all costed and affordable.
But then all of the other parties have done the same exercise. And I think, strategically, that Fianna Fail has realised very late in the day that it blundered by ignoring massive the E8 billion surplus warchest in the Government Exchequer.
All the other parties saw that dropping ball and caught it before it bounced. Thus, they were able to offer wallet-fattening incentives without being accused of spending beyond their means.
The upshot of it all is that the gloves are now off. Fianna Fail also unveiled its first poster yesterday, a sure sign that the bidding war is on. It might not have been called yet but the election campaign is now in full flight.
This is my analysis from today's Irish Examiner