And so it starts. Only eighteen months into a five year term and some jumpy Labour TDs are talking about snap general elections.
While it may be an idle threat, intended to frighten Fine Gael backbenchers, it is the non unnatural response of inexperienced functionaries to the health cut provocations of an inexperienced and dysfunction Minister.
While Minister Reilly’s bluff and bluster approach to his portfolio has irritated and angered many, in his defence it is not as if these Labour backbenchers were not given plenty of warning about the impending health crisis.
Within a couple of months of the last Budget being passed it was clear that health spending was in trouble and that the Minister had not given the health service the tools and supports to make the almost €750 million in savings he was demanding, but were the Labour TDs threatening a general election then? No.
By July those initial worries were confirmed. The mid year numbers showed that health spending was running out of control and the deficit had almost reached €300 million, and was expected to rise to €500 million by year’s end, but were the Labour TDs threatening a general election then? No.
Only now, with the year almost over and the preparations for the next Budget underway, do they find their voices, so what good can they achieve? To be frank: precious little. While some of them may threaten snap elections, the Dáil mathematics suggests that they are powerless and they could not cause an election even if they tried.
While first time Labour TDs may think that sitting on the opposition back benches would be an easier life than sitting on the government ones, Labour front benchers don’t. Does anyone seriously think that the likes of Brendan Howlin, Ruairi Quinn or Pat Rabbitte are ready, willing or prepared to walk away from office?
These guys cannot believe their extreme good fortune to still be there after so long. Some of their Ministerial careers commenced two and three decades ago. Ruairi Quinn was first appointed a Minister back in 1982, Howlin in 1993. They have no plans to go now, or at any mid term re shuffle.
Similarly, many Labour backbench TDs know from reading the opinion polls in their own areas that an election now would only result in them losing out to other left wing parties or independents.
But even ignoring these two very important reasons, the Dáil numbers suggest that Labour withdrawal from Government would not necessarily result in a snap election.
The results of the last General Election gave Fine Gael 76 seats, Labour 37, Fianna Fáil 20, Sinn Féin 14, and 19 various left wingers and assorted independents. The death of Brian Lenihan and the resulting by-election increased Labour’s total by one at Fianna Fail’s expense.
The other changes to the maths are the election of Sean Barrett as Ceann Comhairle, reducing Fine Gael’s numbers by one and the fact that several Government TDs jumped ship, three Labour and one Fine Gael. The three dissident Labour TDs could be expected to follow Labour if it was to pull out.
The point that we forget, however, is that 5 independent TDs voted for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach when the Dáil first met on March 9th 2011.
If these five independents were to stick with Fine Gael that would give a single party Fine Gael Government 80 seats, just three short of an overall majority. Admittedly, this is a very big “if” though the likes of Michael Lowry would find it hard not to vote for his former friends and colleagues.
There is no guarantee that everyone else would vote together to bring about an election. All Fine Gael need is a few abstentions and it can struggle through. The most the combined left: Labour, Socialist, Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and assorted other left leaning independents can muster, at a very big push, is 65.
This gives Fianna Fáil and a few other independents, such as Shane Ross, the effective balance of power. Is that really what these jumpy Labour TDs want?
I doubt it. The bad news for them is that they are stuck on this rollercoaster to the end. They suggested last year that there was as easier way out of this.
There wasn’t. They cannot now just cut and run when the going gets rough. I suppose, in a way, this makes them very much like the rest of us.