The Irish Times view on a big week for Simon Harris: room for manoeuvre is limited

Soon-to-be-taoiseach will deliver the most important speech of his political career this evening when he delivers his first leader’s address

The whirlwind speed with which Simon Harris was confirmed as Fine Gael’s new leader has been followed by a two-week interregnum filled with speculation about his intentions as he prepares for his election as taoiseach on Tuesday. But, as Leo Varadkar indicated in his resignation speech, the timing of that departure was designed in part so that his successor could put his best foot forward at his party’s ard fheis this weekend.

On Saturday evening evening, therefore, Harris will deliver the most important speech of his political career to date when he delivers his first leader’s address in Galway. The value of these live televised set pieces is often over-estimated by political parties but this one is more consequential than most. Harris will effectively be introducing himself to the country which he will be elected to lead next week. And he will be seeking to inspire and mobilise his party as it prepares for the electoral challenges ahead. How he reconciles these two imperatives will be telling.

To what extent will the speech reflect the debate within Fine Gael about whether it should reposition itself under his leadership? That question has largely been framed as an argument in favour of returning to core party values: support for law and order, for small business and for the needs of rural Ireland.

This has been a remarkably stable Government. After an initial period of turbulence, the same fifteen individuals have sat around the Cabinet table since August 2020. That will change on Tuesday when Harris fills the two vacancies caused by the departures of Varadkar and Simon Coveney. This, along with a junior ministerial reshuffle, will be the single biggest indication of any difference of emphasis between the Varadkar and Harris eras.

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In reality, though, his room for manoeuvre is limited. It would be a major surprise if Paschal Donohoe or Heather Humphreys were to be shifted from their current portfolios in Public Expenditure and Social Protection. So the only member of Cabinet who may face a move is Justice Minister Helen McEntee. Considerations of geography as well as aptitude and loyalty to the new leader will influence which aspirants are elevated on Tuesday.

Harris is similarly constrained in any changes he might hope to make in the last year of this Government. His two coalition partners will likely be unenthusiastic about any late additions to its legislative programme, particularly if these reflect a Fine Gael shift towards the centre-right.

Ultimately, and perhaps unfairly, he will be judged on Fine Gael’s performance in the European and local elections in June, and in the general election that must follow by next spring. That is a very short timeframe for the country’s youngest taoiseach to make a significant mark.

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