Sánchez appoints Darias as Health Minister and Iceta as Territorial Policy Minister

Illa leaves claiming he has never acted for personal gain

4 min
Salvador Illa, during the last press conference from the Moncloa as Minister of Health.

MadridFirst crisis in Pedro Sánchez's coalition government, albeit fully controlled and announced weeks in advance. Salvador Illa has said goodbye to the Council of Ministers this Tuesday and is setting out for Catalonia as the Catalan Socialist Party's (PSC) candidate in the elections scheduled for February 14. The decision comes at a complicated time in the pandemic, with the third wave unchecked.

The Spanish President appeared from the Moncloa to announce the easiest change, which had been mooted for weeks, when the PSC announced that Illa would be its candidate in the Catalan elections. The hitherto Minister of Territorial Policy, Carolina Darias, succeeds Illa at the head of the Ministry of Health, while the first secretary of the Catalan Socialist Party ( PSC), Miquel Iceta, will finally make the leap to Madrid as Minister of Territorial Policy, a post that had been left vacant.

Out of the limelight, Darias has now been working side by side with the Ministry of Health team for weeks, attending both the meetings of the coronavirus technical committee and the virtual meetings with all the regional councilors of the inter-territorial health council. It is part of the swap devised in November between Illa and Iceta in order not to reduce the weight of the Catalan quota in the council of ministers. In addition, Iceta is thus rewarded for his step back as a candidate. Until now Darias has had a very discreet profile at the head of Territorial Policy. It remains to be seen if Iceta, with his character, overturns the ministry's strategy.

With this appointment, Iceta returns to Madrid 30 years after he went to be part of Felipe Gonzalez's presidential cabinet. And it's third time lucky: first his attempt to become president of the Senate was thwarted, then Darias ended up being the Minister of Territorial Policy replacing Meritxell Batet when she became Speaker of the Congress, and now he finally makes the leap to the Spanish capital.

Sánchez has assured that Iceta is a "man of agreement and concord" and that he is always in full "collaboration, coordination" and, in short, in full "co-governance", the word that the coalition government keeps using to refer to the negotiation with the autonomous communities.

The PSOE already pointed out at the end of the year that the leader of the PSC would maintain "a fundamental role" in this new stage, with Illa as candidate to the Generalitat. The precidency argued that the department of Territorial Policy and Public Function fitted Iceta's vision and federal vocation of the State. In fact, from minute one, Iceta had made himself "available" to the party. Different socialist leaders endorse the decision, just as Meritxell Batet occupied this newly created ministry during the previous legislature and before being appointed president of the Congress. They consider it a step forward towards "reconciliation" and "the agenda of dialogue" with Catalonia.

Not held to account in Parliament

But Illa leaves without even appearing in a congressional committee as he had promised to do with the approval of the current state of alarm. It will be his replacement, which the Spanish president will announce at 5:30 pm after communicating the decision to Felipe VI, who will have to respond to the opposition, which yesterday Monday was united - Vox, ERC, PP, Ciudadanos and Junts per Catalunya - to demand that the Spanish government face up to the crisis of the coronavirus in the lower house this week.

Despite the dismissal, Illa has appeared for the last time from the stage of the Moncloa press room. And he did so, above all, to say goodbye. "I am leaving Madrid, which is a fantastic city, and many friends," he said after beginning his farewell message to the members of Congress and senators. "I have learned a lot from my political opponents," he emphasised, making it clear that today was his last appearance and that he will not give any more explanations as Minister of Health.

Illa has assured that he will always be where he can be "most useful" as a "public servant", but at the same time he has sworn that he has "never" acted to gain "personal convenience or comfort". Asked whether it is more useful to be at the head of the Health Ministry at a critical moment in the pandemic or to run as a PSC candidate in the Catalan elections, Illa has insisted that he is a party man and accepts whatever his colleagues consider most useful. "Now I'm off to another responsibility that I also anticipate will not be comfortable," he said, noting also that he has no regrets "about anything" he has done.

At the head of the management of the pandemic, he has acknowledged that "perhaps the most difficult moment" he had to face was the decision to restrict attendance at funerals in the midst of the wave of deaths from coronavirus. "I will bear with me the families who suffered the disease," he said, assuring that "the new phase that is beginning is focused on giving the best to bring down the virus". In fact, he has again shown himself convinced that it can be "eradicated" and has maintained that by the end of the summer 70% of the population will be immunised, a percentage that experts question.

The role of Darias and Iceta

Everything indicates that he will be replaced by the current Minister of Territorial Policy, Carolina Darias, who has been accompanying him since November -when Illa and the first Secretary of the PSC, Miquel Iceta, secretly decided that he would be the PSC candidate for the February elections- at the weekly meetings of the inter-territorial health council, which brings together all the regional councillors to try to provide a coordinated response to the pandemic.

In turn, Iceta is the most likely candidate to take over the portfolio that Darias will leave behind. In fact, the first secretary of the PSC has already arrived this morning at Atocha station in Madrid, according to El Mundo. According to the plans announced by the government, tomorrow, Wednesday, the new ministers are expected to take office in the Zarzuela palace before the king. In fact, government spokesperson, María Jesús Montero, despite not wanting to advance the successors, has spoken clearly in the plural in view of the new takeovers planned for tomorrow, Wednesday.