Tuesday 21 November 2017

Kenny's big re-election gamble on Varadkar

Leo's 'poison chalice' admission as Hogan set for EU agriculture post

Minister Leo Varadkar speaking to the press on the Plinth at Leinster House about his new position as Minister for Health. Photo: Arthur Carron
Minister Leo Varadkar speaking to the press on the Plinth at Leinster House about his new position as Minister for Health. Photo: Arthur Carron
Minister Leo Varadkar speaking to the press on the Plinth at Leinster House about his new position as Minister for Health. Photo: Arthur Carron

Fionnan Sheahan, Philip Ryan and Niall O'Connor

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny is gambling on the appointment of Health Minister Leo Varadkar stabilising the crisis- ridden health service ahead of the next general election.

After the local elections drubbing was blamed on the medical card debacle, Mr Kenny is banking on Mr Varadkar's straight-talking and directness winning back public support in a bid to keep Fine Gael in power.

The delivery of tax cuts to middle-income families over the next two budgets, which was promised yesterday, is also a key aspect of Fine Gael's plans for the next general election.

The promotion of Mr Varadkar was the standout move of the reshuffle, where Fine Gael kept the Jobs portfolio and Labour only got Environment and a Super Junior Minister for labour affairs and small business.

Phil Hogan becomes Ireland's nominee to the European Commission, where he is now placed to take the high-spending Agriculture portfolio after relinquishing his Environment role at Cabinet.

Mr Varadkar immediately admitted he cannot fix the health services within 18 months, but promised to grasp the "poison chalice".

The new minister promised he would act to cut the cost of health insurance and medicines, and address issues in hospital A&E departments.

And he pledged there would be no budget overrun in the health service next year.

“I'm not sure if I'll be able to turn a poison chalice into sweet wine, but I'm going to do all I can to improve our health services,” he said.

A senior government source said: “He was always one of the obvious options.”

Mr Kenny made the appointment despite having been warned by close advisers that Mr Varadkar was not a safe enough pair of hands – and that he would not be able to kill off the controversy surrounding the portfolio.

Mr Varadkar's performance in the role is regarded as crucial to his own Fine Gael leadership ambitions. His main opponent, Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, has stayed put in the wide-ranging reshuffle.

“Leo reckons this is his best chance of outpacing Simon. Leo is outspoken, in a way the public like. He is well got with the public. He's the kind of fella to explain you can't have a hospital in every village in the country,” a coalition source said.

Mr Varadkar has admitted he will not be able to balance the health budget this year. He said the health system was not at the same standard as other European countries, but he plans reforms.

“If we are running a deficit ,I don't think it will be possible to turn it around in the space of a few months, but definitely in a full financial year that would be my intention,” he said.

The Health Minister, who is a qualified doctor, also said he did not think he would be able to solve all the problems in the health service before the next general election.

Mr Varadkar said he came from a family of doctors and was looking forward to his new role. “Given my own background in health I always hoped at some point I would hold the Ministry of Health,” he said.

Mr Varadkar's predecessor, Dr James Reilly, moved to become Children's Minister, although he is taking with him a role in promoting public health, including smoking prevention and curbing alcohol consumption.

His move resulted in Charlie Flanagan becoming Foreign Affairs Minister.

The most radical of changes came on the Labour side, as Tanaiste Joan Burton moved to replace three of the party's veteran politicians with younger faces.

The new Labour leader elevated junior ministers Alan Kelly and Alex White to full cabinet posts, as well as promoting former Housing Minister Jan O'Sullivan to the Education portfolio.

Labour TD Ged Nash was appointed super junior minister at the Department of Enterprise and will be given specific responsibility for business and employment.

The personnel decisions made by Ms Burton raised relatively few surprises among Labour TDs.

Mr Kelly, who has replaced Mr Hogan as Environment Minister, was always expected to be handed a prominent ministerial position after comfortably being elected deputy Labour leader last week. The Tipperary TD has impressed fellow TDs with his plain-spoken nature, although other party sources have described him as “divisive”. In an ironic twist, Mr White replaced his mentor Pat Rabbitte in the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.

Irish Independent

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