While much media commentary suggested the recent Cabinet reshuffle was a very straightforward affair – many of the Cabinet members were originally appointed in 2016, and to a large extent, the 2014 reshuffle from a Fine Gael perspective – there are some subtle insights we can take from Leo Varadkar’s picks as to the current political landscape.
First, the focus on Brexit is clear, the establishment of a cohort of the senior Ministers around Brexit is an obvious indication of the importance it will have for the remainder of this Government’s lifetime. Alongside the new Taoiseach, who chairs of the Brexit Cabinet Committee, sits Fine Gael Deputy-Leader, Simon Coveney, who is now Minister for Foreign Affairs with special responsibility for Brexit. No stranger to difficult portfolios (having volunteered to tackle the housing and homelessness crisis in 2016), foreign affairs will clearly be an influential position and may even see a re-re-organisation of Brexit co-ordination back to this Department (having switched to the Department of Taoiseach last year). Placing the Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, in charge of Enterprise policy, and specifically hiving off Labour Affairs to the Social Protection brief is another telling sign that the ‘saving existing jobs and attracting new ones’ response to Brexit will now be an urgent priority. Meanwhile, having worked closely with Michael Noonan for the past year, a stint as Minister for European Affairs on his CV likely strengthened Paschal Donohoe’s hand in expanding his portfolio to include Finance as well as Public Expenditure & Reform.
Collectively, the seniority of these four, each with a clear role in Brexit, may suggest we are to see the (likely informal) creation of an Economic Management Council 2.0 – the 2011 Cabinet within the Cabinet (then Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Finance Minister Michael Noonan, and Public Expenditure & Reform Minister, Brendan Howlin) who were given lead authority in creating and deciding policy to address the major policy issue of the day – repairing the economy. Whether this Council will be formal or more an implicit arrangement is unclear – creating a set grouping with their own set meetings may prove difficult for some Independent members of Government.
As was the challenge for Enda Kenny in 2016, Leo Varadkar’s power and policy ambition will be severely curtailed by the instability of Government created by the Dáil arithmetic – indeed in losing the support of independent TD Dr Michael Harty, the minority Government is now break-even with TDs in opposition, excluding the Fianna Fáil bloc. This limitation was also clear in Varadkar’s appointment decisions – regional spread was evident, there were very few ‘losers’ from the announcement, while the role of ‘Super Junior’ has shifted from a rare posting on major issues of the day to a common practice to overcome the Ministerial limits imposed by the Constitution. He bought himself some room to manoeuvre by ruling out the class of 2016 as candidates for promotion, though agitation on the number of women in the Ministerial ranks has gathered momentum.
The Opposition will be looking for opportunities to test the new Taoiseach, and the changes to the balance of power will be one to watch.