If there was one thing Insider, and everyone else inside the political bubble, was agreed on, it was that the Government would fight tooth and nail to ensure nothing overshadowed the Budget that was to form the cornerstone of its re-election bid.
It came as some surprise then, when in the event, FG-Labour went and almost single-handedly themselves relegated the buildup to this key event to the minor headlines! Insider is of course referring to the convulsions generated by Enda Kenny's 'will he, won't he?' saga surrounding the date of the General Election, which culminated in An Taoiseach having to appear on RTÉ to confirm the election would not, after all, be held until next spring.
Admittedly this was very much an 'inside the beltway' story that generated much heat among the media and political classes but probably not so much excitement among the public. It may, however, have added to the image of the Government as an error-prone administration, all too capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and just generally being bad at 'doing politics'.
The right call?
Insider confesses to having been somewhat taken by surprise by the suggestion that the Taoiseach might go early to the country. For much of this Dáil term, he had expected the Government would not be minded to hold an election in the middle of winter and would arrange things so as to hold either an early autumn or even a May/June election. Subsequent to the 2014 local and European elections, it became obvious the Government really was minded to wait until 2016 and affecting a U-turn was always going to be a tall order.
On balance, having seemingly made the decision to wait until spring, the Government would have looked highly opportunistic in going to the country after the Budget. The government message - one of 'stability' and 'there is no plausible alternative' - would have been diluted by the suggestion they were trying to buy the election. Furthermore Labour's staunch opposition to it - starkly summed up by Minister Alan Kelly's astonishing suggestion that "Enda Kenny is an honourable man so he won't hold an early election", which infuriated FG TDs, meant FG could not go for an early election and simultaneously play that 'stability' card.
Overall though, Insider is not convinced the date of the election will make a huge difference. Ultimately FG and Labour, to use that awful phrase 'are where they are', ongoing political events are not likely to move the polls a huge amount and the Government will be relying on the public, when focused on their decision during an election campaign accepting, probably reluctantly, their arguments for re-electing them.
Budget still key
Having played up the role of the Budget and made it a cornerstone of its campaign, the Government had to be seen to give something back to an austerity-weary public. This is especially the case for a Government that most voters feel has failed badly on social issues such as housing and health.
FG-Labour has preached about 'the recovery' for months, but to most of a cynical public, this smacked of it trying to convince itself of a recovery as much as anything - it therefore had to be seen to back up this talk by making people feel better off. The Government had far more leeway to achieve this than in any of its previous budgets - the economy is growing, albeit from a low base, while tax receipts have ensured the public finances are in better health. The Government could therefore introduce a 'good news' Budget without incurring the wrath of the Fiscal Advisory Council and the ESRI or the IMF and EU.
This did not make the Budget an open goal for them by any means. Leaving aside the economics of it all, the annual Budget is one of the few setpiece occasions where the bulk of the public is fully tuned into politics. It is fraught with threats as much as opportunities. We have seen 'giveaway budgets' in the past that have turned into outright controversy for the government - Charlie McCreevy's 1999 Budget introducing individualisation of the tax bands stands out in the memory - and FG-Labour was as keen to avoid any banana skins when handing out the 'goodies'.
Overall the Government probably got good 'bang for their buck' in this regard. Insider heard many Government backbenchers remark with some relief that 'the telephones were quiet afterwards this year', which most see as the telltale sign of success or failure of a budget. However there was nothing in the Budget that will cause people to feel drastically better off, but equally there was a sense of 'something for everybody in the audience' about it. The difficulty for the Government is that, after years of retrenchment, the public feels it is only getting back a portion of what was previously taken away; nevertheless, taken in tandem with some of last year's modest tax reductions, there is at least a sense that the worst is over.
Bar a minor disagreement with the Fiscal Advisory Council over some technical interpretations, the Government also avoided raising the ire of any of those external observers. Nevertheless there are some gaps in the Government's strategy - for example FG's pledge to abolish the USC deserves further analysis. This loathed tax has served to widen the tax base. Therefore in abolishing it, the question must be asked - what is FG proposing to replace it with? More water charges or other levies on services? Or will the Government not replace it, thereby narrowing the tax base and returning us to the careless policies that exacerbated the economic crisis in the first place?
Making it work in Galway
Having somewhat assuaged voters' concerns, and at least gained grudging thanks for the Budget, the next task for the Government is to persuade voters to stick with it rather than take a chance with an untested alternative. The task in this regard is made much easier by virtue of the fact that nobody can quite see what exactly the alternative government is.
Insider has said many times before that the public is instinctively not minded to reward this government and that any re-election of it will be done with noses being held with close pegs - but that nonetheless the Government is very much in the box seat to do just that. This Budget and the reaction to it rather sums that up.
Of the two parties in government, Insider sees this as an easier sell for FG. In 2011 a large swathe of upper and, crucially, middle-income earners opted for FG as the 'safe choice’. Insider senses a return of this mood - the recent Irish Times opinion poll seems to back this up too - even if enthusiasm for the party is not exactly palpable. These types of voters are especially prevalent in certain constituencies, with Galway city and large swathes of the Oranmore electoral area especially flush with them - hence Dep Brian Walsh (unless he falls foul of his colleague Sen Hildegarde Naughten ) can surely rest assured that his seat is safe.
For TDs such as Sean Kyne and John O'Mahoney, and those in the two east Galway constituencies, that task is tougher as rural areas are seen not to have benefited. Ballinrobe - which has been in economic decline for 20+ years, and this summer suffered the loss of the Irish Pride facility, sums up the difficulties of much of small-town west of Ireland. Can FG rely on its traditional voters in rural areas giving it 'a second chance'? Insider sees this as perhaps the key question that will decide the Government’s fate.
For Labour, the difficulty is that the party is seen to have sold-out on its principles and largely caved in to FG. The fact that these Budget changes are seen as benefiting FG voters is also a problem for the party as Labour has allowed a narrative to develop that benefits for each party's core vote are mutually exclusive. Labour must somehow convince voters that this is not the case – but may have left it too late at this stage – while also convincing voters that voting for it, and not SF or independents, is the only way to restrain FG in government.
What of the alternative?
Insider was struck by a rather muted response from the opposition, in particular from FF. The pitch of the main opposition party during the campaign will be key. While SF, the smaller parties, and some independents, will simply attack the Government and make some radical proposals, putting Labour under serious pressure in the process, the only threat to this Government's re-election will come if FF, and some of the centrist independents, start eating into that 'soft FG' vote.
FF has to get off the fence and set out clearly both what its economic policies will be and also what its attitude is to post-election alliances; otherwise it will be marginalised and seen as irrelevant to the outcome, leaving the Government parties with an open goal.
March is a month in which many Irish eyes turn to Cheltenham; by the time that festival comes around next time however we will have had another chase to savour! The starting gun has now been fired on Election 2016.