News Comment

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Kenny is keeping his cards close to his chest in high-stakes front-bench reshuffle

Published 05/07/2014 | 02:30

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Enda Kenny

Next week, Enda Kenny will play his final trump card in the high-stakes political poker game before the next general election as he sets about formulating his new Cabinet. He will need to choose carefully to create a winning hand, which ensures that his house of cards does not come tumbling down before its time. Once Sheriff Chopra left town, Enda's honeymoon was over; now it is all down to him to get things back on track.

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As Enda looks across his cabinet table at Doc Reilly, Big Phil and Richard Bruton, he will no doubt be minded of past loyalties and old enemies. In all likelihood he will do whatever is most advantageous for his own political progress, rather than give way to personal platitudes.

Promised cabinet report cards may have been filed under 'Bin' with the five-point plan, but he has been keeping score of political problems accumulated. Recent casualties such as Alan Shatter and Frank Flannery suggest that he has the emotional detachment required for hard choices. The time for bluffing is over and friends who are surplus to requirements are unwanted, dead or alive.

There are major considerations when reassigning cabinet positions, most of which are not policy-driven. First and foremost are the considerations of geographical location. Who will give strategic advantage to the party electorally in the next general election? Most particularly, he will need to stave off the very real electoral threat of the newest posse to hit town, Sinn Fein with its former bad boy Gerry Adams, and his more serious side-kick Mary Lou. After that, his deliberations will centre on loyalty, internal and external party considerations, and gender balance, although perhaps not in that order.

Whatever his over-arching and ultimate reasons will be, you can bet your bottom dollar that he will not have been swayed by the latest round of cabinet pre-shuffle gun-slinging.

Politics is like poker – no one wants to quit when they are losing but no one wants to quit while they're ahead either. Over the past number of weeks, the national airwaves and newspapers have been awash with cabinet ministers telling us how happy they are in their existing portfolios. Such declarations of unrequited bliss are code for "please don't move me; I have only just got the hang of the brief that I am in now". So happy are the boys around the cabinet table, one might be forgiven for thinking that Government Buildings resembled Google HQ, complete with slides and beanbags.

Another gem in recent weeks has come from minister Leo Varadkar who says that he would "prefer to stay where he is or have economic portfolios" – this is barely even code for "I do not want to go to the Department of Health".

Realising that there is probably a maximum of 18 months left in this administration, ministers simply do not want to change departments now because it is too much of a gamble. Any move is likely to be sideways or downwards and not upwards. An alteration in portfolio at this late stage in the government cycle could lead settled ministers into sticky political problems in the tricky period ahead of a general election. Starting off with a new set of civil servants, coupled with a new policy brief to learn and command, is very daunting at the best of times. It takes at least a full calendar year to fit comfortably into the workings of any government department.

In the run-up to a general election, pressure intensifies enormously and government ministers are faced with an avalanche of extra demands stemming from constituency considerations from backbench TDs and councillors. Such pressures are easier to deal with if you have (at least) already mastered your own government department.

Ageism, tourism and socialism are all reasons ministers have cited in the past few weeks for remaining in their positions. The reality is much simpler: it is a case of "it is better the devil you know".

As speculation reaches fever pitch in Leinster House, there is also the testy question of whether Phil Hogan or Eamon Gilmore will make it to Europe. What portfolio either man can secure should merit most consideration but, with no other aces up his sleeve, Enda must choose between rewarding his trusty lieutenant and sending a recently demoted Tanaiste to an even better gravy train.

So far he has kept his cards very close to his chest, as any poker player worth his salt would. The hand that the Taoiseach and this Government were dealt from the outset was less than favourable, but in politics, as in poker, timing is everything.

It's not always a matter of holding good cards, but playing bad hands well. Poker is a combination of luck and skill. Learning a skill takes time but mastering luck is much more elusive. This Government has not been lucky but neither has it shown much skill politically. Now as he contemplates his royal flush in deciding who to keep and who to let go, Enda faces some tough choices.

As the Taoiseach sits down to reshuffle his deck, he might do well to recall a line from perhaps the most famous song ever written about poker, 'The Gambler': "You've got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them."

Like in poker, politics is a game where it is every man for himself.

Irish Independent

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