Fine Gael reshuffle signals make or break time for Kenny
Opinion: Giving the European Commissionership to Hogan in line with expectations gives Kenny more space to rebrand his Government
‘Attention is focused on the fortunes of James Reilly with a general consensus emerging that he will cease to be Minister for Health next week. Reilly is an issue politician and health, in particular universal health insurance, is his issue.’ Above, Reilly at the launch of the White Paper on Universal Health Insurance earlier this year. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
After five messy months, a very bad outcome in the local and European elections and a month of stagnation since polling day, the Government gets a chance next week to steady and refocus.
The election of a new Labour Party leader yesterday and the Cabinet reshuffle due in coming days, heralds some prospect at least of rebooting the Government and containing the haemorrhage in political support suffered by its two component parties.
Inevitably there has been much focus in recent weeks on the prospects for the junior Coalition partner. Fine Gael, however, also sustained substantial losses in the local elections and the party’s impressive looking European election performance owes much to disastrous vote management by Fianna Fáil in Ireland South.
The fact that Fine Gael came to within 1,149 votes of losing its European Parliament seat in Dublin has given many of the party’s newer deputies in the capital pause for thought about their own electoral demise. Enda Kenny, therefore, has as much riding on this reshuffle as the new Labour leader has.
Saving Fine Gael’s fortunes will require more than just a change of faces in Government, but new faces will help. Cabinet reshuffles usually pass comfortably and provide a necessary injection of new energy and novelty media value. Taoisigh are usually content if they manage that.
Sometimes, if accompanied by other measures, reshuffles can prove even more successful. The scenario Kenny needs is something akin to the “Inchydoney repositioning” that Bertie Ahern achieved for his government in 2004. Having dispatched Charlie McCreevy to the European Commission and changed a couple of other ministers, Ahern talked much about being a socialist and invited Fr Sean Healy to address a party think-in at the west Cork resort. He thereby managed to launch a recovery in his party’s fortunes that saw him return to power in the 2007 general election.
The nightmare scenario to be avoided for Kenny is anything that is reminiscent of Garret FitzGerald’s Cabinet reshuffle in 1986, which detonated spectacularly when Labour’s Barry Desmond refused to move portfolios and FitzGerald’s authority was left badly damaged.
Own choosingWhen it comes to the Labour side of the Cabinet, Ruairí Quinn’s resignation makes things even easier for his new leader. Quinn cleverly got to announce his going at a time of his own choosing, thereby generating a news cycle of well-earned plaudits for his political career that would otherwise have been buried in reshuffle rubble.
Labour circles are now full of speculation of even more dramatic changes, including the potential appointment of a Senator to the Cabinet, which would be an interesting twist less than a year after the Taoiseach sought to abolish the Upper House.
Had Alan Shatter not resigned after the Guerin report was published, his prospects for survival in the reshuffle would have been the main point of speculation on the Fine Gael side. Instead, attention is focused on the fortunes of James Reilly, with a general consensus emerging that he will cease to be Minister for Health next week. Reilly is an issue politician and health, in particular universal health insurance, is his issue.
He has been a busy and reforming Minister, struggling to dramatically overhaul the health services with less money to fund it. His errors as Minister flow mainly from his lack of political experience or a broad political base in the Fine Gael parliamentary party.
Reilly, of course, is deputy leader of Fine Gael, but he came to that position by default, being the only Fine Gael TD in Dublin available for the post after Richard Bruton’s aborted heave against Enda Kenny in Opposition in June 2010.
Needs mustWhen it comes to Reilly’s ministerial position, there is a sense of needs must in Fine Gael. Such has been the political damage caused to the Government by the medical cards debacle that the public, and nervous Fine Gael backbenchers, now require a sacrifice on the issue, and even if it is unfair, Reilly looks set to be that lamb.
Another outcome from the 2010 heave against Kenny will play out this week when Phil Hogan secures the Taoiseach’s nomination to be Ireland’s next European commissioner. Fine Gael insiders say that while there has been no formal spoken contract between Hogan and Kenny on the topic, there has been a working assumption since the heave that if Fine Gael went into government, Hogan would get the nod for Brussels.
Since the Government was formed and Labour secured the position of attorney general, there has also been a working assumption between the parties on the point.
Giving the commissionership to Hogan in line with these expectations gives Kenny more space to rebrand his Government. Denying it to Hogan would cause more internal party problems than Kenny could handle right now.
Reshuffles always come with risks. This will be a nervous weekend for the Taoiseach. A fresh ministerial line-up could be the remaking of him and his Government. If he botches this reshuffle, however, then, in a worst-case scenario, it could precipitate political freefall.