The departure of Denis Naughten in controversial circumstances forced Leo Varadkar to move Education Minister Richard Bruton over to Naughten's embattled Department of Communications, to salvage the National Broadband Plan, writes Daniel McConnell
ONE of the more interesting things to emerge from the Christmas break was the prospect, later this summer, of a Cabinet reshuffle.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that once the local and European elections were out of the way, he would freshen up his line up of ministers.
Incredibly, this would be the fourth shake-up of the ministerial order since Varadkar was elected Taoiseach in June 2017.
Speaking to political correspondents, Varadkar said he would follow the example of his predecessor, Enda Kenny, who performed a similar reshuffle in 2014.
“I’ve always said that would be the logical time to reshuffle the Cabinet, to reshuffle your team, is after the local and European elections. That was done on the last occasion by Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. I’d be minded to do the same,” he said.
“There’ll be a chance to reshuffle the team then, perhaps in June or July. That would give them a chance, over the summer, to read into new briefs, if they get them. But we need to get there first,” he said, in reference to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
The Taoiseach refused to be drawn on the fate of various ministers, saying it “would not be fair” to speculate.
Yet the immediate thought was who was vulnerable to being dropped and who was likely to be promoted.
Varadkar was criticised, largely from within, on becoming Taoiseach in 2017 for being overly cautious in his changes to the Cabinet.
On that occasion, given that both outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his veteran finance minister, Michael Noonan, volunteered to resign, Varadkar had two new slots to play with before he had to consider dropping anyone.
In the end, he demoted just one minister, Mary Mitchell O’Connor.
But he made her a super junior minister for higher education, which allowed her to remain at the Cabinet table.
It appeared that he had bottled a big and unpleasant decision.
At that stage, he brought his campaign manager, Eoghan Murphy, as well as Kenny’s chief whip, Regina Doherty, and veteran Mayo TD Michael Ring into the Cabinet.
But, since then, Varadkar has been forced into two mini-reshuffles, caused by the resignations of two ministers amid controversy.
In November 2017, then Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald was forced to resign in order to avoid a snap general election, after Fianna Fáil called for her head in the wake of a controversy involving the treatment of garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe.
It led to the elevation of Josepha Madigan straight from the backbenches, much to the annoyance of some of her more senior colleagues, who were overlooked.
THE departure of Denis Naughten, also in controversial circumstances, forced Varadkar to move Education Minister Richard Bruton over to Naughten’s embattled Department of Communications, in order to salvage the near-fatally doomed National Broadband Plan.
The irony was that had Naughten not resigned, Bruton would have been top of the list for the chop come the summer, given that he has been at the Cabinet since 2011 and many felt he has had a good innings. But, as of now, Bruton is untouchable, at least until the smell of controversy has faded away from all things broadband, and that could take some time.
One person who has signalled a willingness to bow out of ministerial life is the aforementioned Mitchell O’Connor, who has said she is up for contesting the European seat being vacated by Brian Hayes.
Having been demoted once, it is a fair summation that she perhaps sees the writing on the wall and is preparing to jump before she is pushed.
But there is one serious impediment to her plan.
The Government, even with Fianna Fáil facilitating it, is in a minority position in the Dáil. The loss of any TD to Europe would only weaken that position further and could tip it over the point where even individual votes from opposition TDs may not be enough to pass legislation.
With that in mind, Varadkar may look to stymie Mitchell O’Connor, and other Fine Gael TDs who have an eye on Europe, similar to Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin’s diktat to his own front bench to forget about relocating to Brussels.
Martin said that in the context of speculation that Cork North Central TD Billy Kelleher was considering a run, amid growing frustration at being in opposition since 2011 and the strains of the much-hated confidence-and-supply deal.
Varadkar will know that reshuffles can be notoriously tricky affairs to get right.
As Jonathan Powell, one-time adviser to former UK prime minister Tony Blair writes in his book, The New Machiavelli, reshuffles are not HR exercises and leaders have to consider the political balance of the whole team. He says that if you appoint only your own supporters, you build up resentment among others.
If you pass over your supporters too readily, they are the ones who grow resentful.
You also have to be careful who you sack. If you sack too many of your enemies, you will find them organising opposition to you on the back benches.
It is sometimes better to have them in than out.
But, equally, Powell argues, you don’t want perversely to reward people for plotting, or that will convince more of them that attacking the leadership is a safe way to secure a job.
You also have to achieve generational balance.
But you cannot leave older people in place too long, or the younger ones will grow restive.
Powell argues that a leader should always err on the side of sacking more people and bringing on more young talent sooner, even if, in doing so, he is taking a political risk by building up resentment on the back benches.
If he lacks talent in his front bench, he will lose anyway, and, if the party succeeds, his popularity will discourage those on the back benches from trying to remove him.
Varadkar, unlike any previous Fine Gael leader in modern history, is in total control of his party, so if he manages to keep the shaky coalition together until the summer, to allow him carry out his reshuffle, he may feel encouraged to be braver than he was in 2017. Having raised the spectre of a reshuffle, should the Taoiseach fail to sack anyone and merely move ministers to other departments, he will stand accused of having bottled it again.