Daniel McConnell: Leo’s Cabinet call will disappoint more of his TDs than please them

Daniel McConnell: Leo’s Cabinet call will disappoint more of his TDs than please them

The historic mid-term changeover of power is a new occurrence in Irish politics and is one that is fraught with difficulty for both Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar.

On December 15, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and his Cabinet will formally tender their resignations to make way for a new leader as Leo Varadkar will once again become leader of the country.

The historic mid-term changeover of power is a new occurrence in Irish politics and is one that is fraught with difficulty for both Martin and Varadkar.

Unlike in 2017, when Varadkar had plenty of jobs to give out and a united party, the court of King Leo in 2022 is a far sadder and desolate place.

Devoid of his coterie of allies like Eoghan Murphy who swept him into power ahead of Simon Coveney, Varadkar now stands as an aloof leader with an increasingly bitchy and pissed-off parliamentary party who no longer see him as their saviour.

Badly damaged by the leak controversy which saw him subject to a garda investigation for 18 months, Varadkar’s disastrous electoral record of five by-election defeats and a general election defeat is no longer seen as the maverick hero he promised four years ago.

As he admitted himself in 2020, the best thing he could have done was to go into opposition, but for some reason, he decided that another spell in government was what was needed.

By doing so, the natural and inevitable realignment of Irish politics was delayed.

Battered and bruised party

But, as Paschal Donohoe made clear in the Irish Examiner’s Let Me Tell You podcast this summer, being in government is the only thing that matters.

As a result, here we have a battered and bruised Fine Gael, tired from 11 years in office, limping rather than charging back into the premier seats in government.

A myth has been spun by the Varadkar camp that all will be well from a Fine Gael perspective once he retakes the top job and is running the table.

The truth is unlike 2017, Varadkar’s options to offer preferment on his hopeful TDs is severely limited and potential demotions are fraught with difficulty.

Starting with the junior ministers, Frank Feighan, Josepha Madigan, and Colm Brophy are expected to lose their posts to be replaced by Peter Burke, Jennifer Carroll McNeill, and former minister and current deputy government whip, Brendan Griffin.

Given her woeful handling of the special needs education issue, few tears will be shed over Madigan and Brophy’s immense self-regard and pomposity has done him few favours even if he has been willing to defend the indefensible publicly for the party.

The utterly likeable Feighan, aged 60, has reached the pinnacle of his political career largely in recognition of his support for closing down the A&E in Roscommon hospital than any discernible talent. His departure will upset no one other than himself.

High-level targets

The problems for Varadkar really start when you start thinking of his potential moves at senior Cabinet level.

Firstly, he has a decision as to the very nice and inoffensive Hildegarde Naughten who serves as a super junior transport minister sitting at the Cabinet table.

Dublin Airport’s fiasco this summer is enough to demand her axing.

The decision Varadkar has to make is whether he keeps Naughten at the Cabinet table and makes her his chief whip or does he put his current whip Griffin into her position.

Some in Fine Gael have suggested that despite her insipidness, Naughten could be spared the axe because of a need to keep a number of women in position.

Griffin, a dogged Kerry TD, has been a popular whip and a bolchy advocate for the party and is not afraid to get stuck into political opponents.

Coveney for the chop?

The obvious candidate on one level for demotion is Cork South Central TD and deputy party leader Simon Coveney who singlehandedly has knocked about seven points off Fine Gael’s popularity.

Along with Varadkar, he is the only minister left who has been at the Cabinet table since 2011 and has left a trail of calamity in his wake in several departments.

Simon Coveney looks likely to be spared in any reshuffle.
Simon Coveney looks likely to be spared in any reshuffle.

He is, however, seen as a true Fine Gael blue blood, and is the main reason why so many rural TDs and supporters of the party continue to stomach Varadkar as party leader. Remember two-thirds of grassroots supporters wanted Coveney and not Varadkar to be leader back in 2017.

On that basis, Coveney is also likely to be spared demotion but may move from Foreign Affairs.

Paschal Donohoe, for so long the stand-out performer in Varadkar’s Cabinet, remains a diminished force in his own party since the 2020 General Election defeat.

The recent row over his future as president of the Eurogroup has been unseemly and stupid because it is not one Fine Gael can win.

Donohoe was elected to the Eurogroup in July 2020, three weeks after the Government was formed, therefore knowing his term of office would only extend to December of this year.

For his party leader to come out and make such a public play for his retention has been unnecessarily juvenile and petty and worse it has undermined the very “cohesion” of the government.

It is doubtful that Donohoe will want to go back to the Department of Public Expenditure and could be eyeing up a role in Foreign Affairs.

In light of his lack of support among his party colleagues for him, a ruthless Varadkar could seek to dispose of Donohoe’s services, but that is unlikely.

Heather Humphreys, like Donohoe, is at Cabinet since 2014 and has solidified her position and would be hard done by if she was to be demoted.

Her geographical base, her gender, and popularity mean she is virtually safe from demotion.

A wily operator, Humphreys has delivered the long-awaited plan to tackle the pensions crisis to internal approval.

Threat posed by Harris

That leaves Simon Harris and Helen McEntee, the two emerging candidates to replace Varadkar as the next leader of Fine Gael.

McEntee, as justice minister, has lived a somewhat charmed existence in government, skilfully avoiding controversy since taking office, until now.

The attacks on her by Fianna Fáil backbenchers this week about the degrees of lawlessness in Dublin have put her under a level of pressure she has not yet experienced.

Expecting her second child in December at the same time of the proposed reshuffle complicates Varadkar’s considerations as to any potential reshuffle.

As for Harris, Varadkar and him are notoriously not close and are deeply wary of each other.

Varadkar has long suspected Harris of briefing and leaking against him while Harris has made no bones of his desire to be the leader.

 Leo Varadkar is understood to be deeply wary of Simon Harris TD.
 Leo Varadkar is understood to be deeply wary of Simon Harris TD.

Varadkar and his supporters would love to be rid of the ambitious Wicklow minister but they fear what he would be like was he outside the fold, plotting on the backbenches.

As with any leader, Varadkar hates reshuffles as he will inevitably disappoint way more people than please them.

Weakened significantly compared to 2017, the temptation for him is to play it safe and avoid as much unpleasantness.

The difficulty is that the team he appoints on December 15 will be his team to head into the next general election and for many in his party, minor changes will not cut it.

They see their party as lacking identity, direction, and leadership and see Varadkar as increasingly aloof and disconnected.

For him, Varadkar needs to reinject some life into his flagging and jaded party.

The big question is whether he is brave and strong enough to bring the needed change.

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