The cabinet reshuffle sees the government select its management team to face the electorate at the next general election. The delay in announcing it created quite a lot of fuss. In my last piece I warned against the dangers of Joan Burton staying put in Social Protection. That warning was not heeded. While a majority of commentators might disagree with me on it, I stand firm over my assessment that I think this was an error. Social Protection does not carry enough weight as a ministry. While people felt Joan was hard done by after the 2011 election that sympathy is now gone, she has confirmed that social protection was the role she wanted and therefore will take the blame now for all the cuts that have happened on her watch.
There is a suggestion that the numbers on the live register are falling so Social protection will have good news to give. This won’t happen. While the numbers will fall the credit will go to the Jobs minister for getting them back to work. If Joan has money over it will be used to bolster the ailing Department of health where the government needs an impact. There will be no increases in social welfare rates, no extra payments and no easing of the burden for those surviving on welfare. Nor will the Department be reformed, if it hasn’t happened by now then it’s not going to. Joan Burton took a safe option. it’s a ‘stay as you are’ policy that is trying to avoid risk and increased responsibility.
The Labour party has said that it now controls ministries that are close to its base and relevant. Wonderful. it controls them at a time when there is still no money to do anything. The expectations will be big and almost impossible to deliver.
Apart from the appointment of Heather Humphreys this was a fairly safe and steady reshuffle. No doubt the phrase ‘calm heads are needed’ was used a lot in the negotiations and preparations. It is not the reshuffle of a government that took a fairly large kicking at the local elections and wants to reverse this. It is the reshuffle of a government that believes its only a matter of time before people see sense and ‘it will be alright on the day’. Like its predecessor this government has decided to avoid gambles or playing for high stakes. While Labour has made some decent changes, and got a shift in portfolios I just can’t see it being radical enough. To me it suggest that the party still hasn’t grasped just how deep the trouble it is in is. What was called for was far more stern and radical and there is nothing here to suggest that Fine Gael is in any way wary of the new more assertive Labour. They are still ready to face them down and I fear Joan has not shown that she is daring enough to really put the frighteners on Enda Kenny.
Fine Gael will be very happy with the reshuffle. A few new faces and steady as she goes. Even James Reilly avoided the drop. What is interesting is that if you look at recent Health Ministers then the bad part of the job is trying to run the hospitals, the only good bit is the public health. That bit gets you some kudos, a few preventative programmes, good information campaigns and give tobacco a good kick. This is what helps Health ministers. The new division sees Leo Varadkar left with all the ugly troublesome bits of health while James Reilly walks away from the wreckage of his outlandish promises with all the nice PR bits of health. He will be sniggering at Leo in the coming months.
The only other danger for FG was the strange decision to bundle Defence and Agriculture in together. These two ministries do not have a lot in common. Agriculture has been happy with Simon Coveney, who has done well. However, people in rural Ireland generally feel that they are not top of the governments priority list. The Defence forces have questions in this regard too. Bundling two senior ministries into one will only cement the view that neither of these sectors is seen as deserving of a full ministry.
Rumours are that in the junior ministerial ranks there will be a role for Labour affairs and a Rural Affairs ministry. Both of these are earmarked for Labour Party personnel. The first is understandable. The second is a bit of a mystery. Labour will not find a new vote in rural Ireland and the only possible answer I can think of is that Willie Penrose wants a return to the junior ministerial ranks.
All in all the government will feel pleased with itself but it is the polls that will tell a story. It would appear that despite warnings from bodies like the ESRI the government is determined to pin all its electoral hopes on cutting the top rate of tax. It is a play for middle Ireland. The problem is though that it may not work out as well as they think. A decent tax cut will save you a couple of hundred euro in a year. Not to be sneezed at. however, it will be for earners who are more worried about figures far in excess of that. A couple of euro in each pay packet may hardly be noticed when set against, property and water charges that will far outweigh it. Then of course there is another problem for Labour. How will that pan out in the PR realm? Is a cut in the top rate of tax really preferable to Joan Burton restoring some of the cuts to welfare payments? In a battle for the left, Sinn Fein will be sharpening their swords on that one. But sure who listens to me? Certainly not Jenda.