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.
The hyperbole which accompanied the exit from the bailout overstated the Government’s responsibility for the achievement and understated the extent to which Ireland was subject to tight budgetary strictures under European Union arrangements. Enda Kenny was front and centre in all this hyperbole. This Government never really appreciated that it was put in power with such a massive majority, not by an electorate which loved them deeply but by an electorate, which in large part was on the rebound. These voters remain unsettled in their political emotions and have no loyalty to the Government TDs for whom they voted at the last election.
Over the past 10 days each Government backbencher will have mentally graphed the results in their local electoral areas over the map of their Dáil constituency. They will have quickly come to worrying conclusions about their own prospects for re-election. This is why for the first time Enda Kenny is facing open opposition within his own party and why some Fine Gael deputies are talking so publicly about the need for a reshuffle of Fine Gael Ministers.
In the next few months Enda Kenny has to develop a new relationship with a new Labour leadership and seek to calm Labour nerves. He has to reconfigure his ministerial line-up at senior and junior levels without causing wider internal Fine Gael dissent. He must resolve the medical card debacle. He will have to deal with further questioning about how the former Garda crommissioner came to resign. While at the same time he must frame another budget and chart a careful course between growing public expectations and budgetary constraints.
Kenny must do all of this with a cadre of advisers and political counsel which is now diminished. They are undermined by their mishandling of recent issues and by the election outcomes. The Taoiseach’s intimate circle is also reduced by the absence of Frank Flannery and impending departure of Phil Hogan to the European Commission. If Kenny himself has any doubts about his capacity to lead and hold the Cabinet through these difficult challenges he might be wise to look more favourably on any job offers which he himself receives from Brussels.
See Shane Hegarty, Weekend Review