Cabinet seats up for grabs under new leadership
Winning candidate will be expected to reward loyalists and appease rival camp
Varadkar supporter: Eoghan Murphy, Minister of State for Finance. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Simon Coveney and faithful lieutenant Damien English, the current Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal. Photograph: Eric Luke
Varadkar supporter: Josepha Madigan, arriving at a Fine Gael meeting in Newbridge. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
Coveney supporter: Kate O’Connell arriving at Leinster House. Photograph: Eric Luke
Whoever wins the Fine Gael leadership will have a delicate task when it comes to hiring and firing Ministers. A complete purge would be a little like the latest craze for kids, the fidget spinner. It would astound but only for a short period, and then the cracks of a longer-term systemic problem could emerge.
If they are smart, the winner will have a delicate juggling act to perform. They will have to accommodate not only their own supporters, but also senior people in the rival team, as well as some of the old guard from Kenny’s Cabinet.
The textbook example of that is what Kenny himself did when he saw off Richard Bruton’s leadership challenge in 2010. He appointed Bruton back to the frontbench – but not in finance – and also included two of the biggest plotters against him: yep, the self-same Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.
Sure, some were cast into outer darkness. But Kenny’s longevity was helped by him being big enough over time to bring most of them back in – including Charlie Flanagan, Michael Creed and Denis Naughten (the latter more a reconciliation than a return).
What is certain about the changes is that they will involve a generational shift. The average age of the Cabinet will drop by a decade at least as the strongest young supporters of both Coveney and Varadkar can expect preferment.
But the need to include others (and the fact that three senior Cabinet posts are already taken by Independents) will limit the room for manoeuvre.
Those who will remain without any doubt are Paschal Donohoe and Simon Harris. Donohoe would be favoured to get Finance, and even though Harris is seen as a Coveney supporter, he may end up in Health irrespective of who becomes leader. Of the others the likeliest survivors are Heather Humphreys, Richard Bruton and Frances Fitzgerald, but again it will depend on who the victor is.
So who will go? Michael Noonan’s fate will be tied to that of Kenny, and he will depart at the same time. Mary Mitchell O’Connor will be vulnerable, as will Creed and Flanagan, despite the latter’s tireless work in foreign affairs.
If Varadkar wins it is likely that his strongest supporters such as Eoghan Murphy and Seán Kyne will be promoted. Dublin Rathdown Deputy Josepha Madigan has also rowed in behind his campaign, and might be given the Justice portfolio (she is a solicitor by profession). Humphreys could get the Tánaiste gig, and don’t rule out Michael Ring getting a senior ministry.
Others who are expected to support Varadkar are Limerick TD Patrick O’Donovan, Wexford’s Michael Darcy and Kilkenny’s John Paul Phelan. All will expect to get prominent roles, although the number of Cabinet seats is limited.
Regina Doherty would be another strong contender for a senior ministry irrespective of who wins, although she has some times got herself into difficulty.
If it is Coveney the obvious promotion would be for Damien English, the fast-talking and ebullient Meath TD who is his campaign director. Other candidates for promotion could be Dublin deputies Maria Bailey and Kate O’Connell, although as newcomers both would expect junior ministries.