Testing times ahead for the Taoiseach
Opinion: Kenny’s Coalition management skills now look ropey
‘In the next few months Enda Kenny has to develop a new relationship with a new Labour leadership and seek to calm Labour nerves.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times
The outcome of the local and European elections and associated political happenings has put the Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s capacity, or lack of it, for competent political leadership in sharp focus. His Coalition management skills, which looked impressive while he enjoyed a comfortable relationship with Eamon Gilmore, now look ropey and are likely to be severely tested from July onwards when he will have to cope with a newly chosen leader of an increasingly insecure Labour Party.
The Taoiseach was damaged even before the local elections by his handling of controversies concerning the minister for justice Alan Shatter. For months before Shatter’s resignation Enda Kenny was repeatedly extolling Shatter’s virtues as a great minister while simultaneously second-guessing Shatter or cutting him out of key decisions on Justice issues, including the procurement of the resignation of the then Garda Commissioner in what are still very controversial circumstances.
The controversy around medical cards which has enveloped the Minister for Health James Reilly for months arises in part from department level failing but was caused primarily by failures at Cabinet level.
The crude cost controls imposed on the health budget at the time of the last budget targeted especially at savings on the cost of medical cards were insisted on by the Departments of An Taoiseach and Public Expenditure and Reform despite warnings from Reilly that these savings were just not attainable.The Taoiseach and the Public Expenditure Minister showed no appreciation of the dramatic political impact to which a review of medical cards on such a scale would give rise.
Fine Gael backbenchers talk openly now about how, for months, they reported back to Reilly, to other ministers and to the Taoiseach himself about the abuse they were getting at the doorsteps on the medical card issue. There were, it seems, stand-up rows during at least one Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting earlier this year as backbenchers grew increasingly frustrated at the failure of those at the top table to listen to them on the issue.
This failure to listen and adjust is something for which not just the Minister for Health but also the Taoiseach must take responsibility. It is also worth noting that both Fine Gael and Labour started to dip in the polls long before the local and European elections. They both got a significant poll bounce in the wake of the much-trumpeted exit from the bailout programme only then to suffer a significant drop again.
It seems that this trumpeting itself contributed to their political problems. Pat Rabbitte admitted as much to Claire Byrne during the election count coverage. The hyping of the exit from the bailout inevitably gave rise to an adjustment in expectations. The Irish people, fatigued and in many cases exhausted by austerity, dared to hope that their personal economic situation would improve in the short term. For most this did not happen.