What just happened to Brian Cowen's Cabinet?
The Government can barely rely on a majority but is terrified of holding any byelections, writes Kate Kavanagh
The Government ship is floundering. Taoiseach Brian Cowen is losing ministers and TDs like rats leaving a sinking ship. It's an epidemic. The latest to go is Martin Cullen who's been asking for shore leave since January.
So why is that a problem?
Dwindling voting numbers, and ministers having to take on other portfolios.
He can usually rely on Mary Harney for ballast in stormy weathers but she's nearing the rock herself with the latest health service scandal.
Not only does the Taoiseach need her vote, he won't want to take on Health if she goes. He already has Willie O'Dea's Defence.
He wouldn't welcome the challenge of Health then?
Hardly. He likened it to Angola when he had it, because it was full of landmines.
So he'll understand the need for it to be reformed. What did he do with Health in his reshuffle when he became Taoiseach?
He left it with Mary Harney.
So what's to be done?
The Taoiseach finds himself forced into a Cabinet reshuffle.
But it could be his opportunity to shine, to be energetic and imaginative, to show leadership . . . this is why people go into politics, so they can change things?
He doesn't do any of that. He does baffled and bewildered.
He has major problems. What are his numbers?
Here's how it works. There are 166 seats in the Dail. Every time the Government wants to pass something -- they have a bit of a debate then it goes to a vote. Brian Cowen needs a majority or the Government could fall at any time.
The Opposition is always lying in the long grass, waiting for an opportunity of weakness, to call for a motion of no confidence in the Government.
And if they lose, there'll be a general election, the Government are bound to lose majestically, and the Opposition will be in power, right?
That's the danger, though it looks like those in the long grass haven't a huge appetite for power at the moment.
So gestures of attack are half-hearted? They do seem to let lots of opportunities go. Shouting criticism from across the floor keeps them more popular with the public than the ineffectual mutterings coming from government benches.
So what are the numbers? What's Brian Cowen got to work with?
It's tricky. He's got 71 Fianna Fail TDs.
They have to vote with him.
Right. That's the whip effect. This also applies to his coalition partners -- six Greens, three Indies, and Mary Harney.
That's 81. How many have the opposition?
They total 78.
Close. Hang on. 78 plus 81 equal 159. Where are the other seven?
There are three volatile votes from mavericks that he can usually rely on -- but they're good at smelling popular positions and could scupper the ship at any time. They could raise his number to 84 -- but this will be cancelled after the three by-elections. The seventh is the Ceann Comhairle -- who in a tie will vote for the Government.
So you don't think he'll win the by-elections?
He's terrified to even think about looking out that porthole. Who'd even want to stand? Though we should pay attention to whoever does -- courage in the face of defeat in the interest of democracy is a noble thing.
So what's to be done?
As we say, rumours of a Cabinet reshuffle are not exaggerated.
Shifting the chairs on the 'Titanic'?
More like musical chairs. He's got more people to please than he has chairs.
Surely this is an opportunity to clear the decks and put a new crew in place?
Now that's what should be done. That's the spirit of the democratic process. Instead, everything will change, everything will remain the same.
Our Taoiseach feels he has to consider so many other criteria that the idea of the right person for the right job goes overboard.
Where do I start? You see how tight the numbers are? Well, he has to keep everyone outside his core 71 sweet to guarantee their support.
That seems a bit unfair to the loyal and faithful?
That's what they say. For going along with unpopular decisions without question, the backbenchers get nothing but a kick in the aspect from the electorate the next time round.
And the mavericks and Indies get rewarded with everything from local favours to Cabinet posts -- so they improve their chances of re-election?
That doesn't seem fair.
It's not. It's not democracy as it's meant to be. It's politics.