Reshuffles cause a certain amount of instability in government given the ambitious and egocentric nature of TDs. But Brian Cowen's 'shuffle', as former junior minister Máire Hoctor called it, has been a disaster, dismaying even the most loyal supporters.

Last week's changes were supposed to showcase a talented team ready to take on the many tough tasks Ireland faces. But in the end, it was political botox – a fake makeover that, far from renewing and rejuvenating a tired government, has left the cabinet face even more fixed and inflexible. The government is so cemented in its own world it is incapable of a spontaneous response to the ever more complicated stream of oncoming events.

Brian Cowen's choice of ministers from an inner circle of friends and allies has not strengthened the fortress around him but undermined it. It has ignited a rump of protest within the party, destabilising his own ability to get things done within the Dáil. Even worse, it has left the wider public with a growing sense of trepidation about what the future holds.

It's true that a lot of the internal dissent – though not all – has come from a predictable core of malcontents. John McGuinness and the other Fianna Fáil backbenchers who have publicly voiced their dissatisfaction represent only about 10% of the party's Dáil members. A good proportion of the most strident critics are from the Carlow, Kilkenny and Tipperary area and they are incandescent that Mary White, the Green Carlow-Kilkenny TD, got a junior ministry.

But as our own survey of Fianna Fáil backbenchers shows, while they are not ready for an open heave against the taoiseach, a significant proportion now believe that Brian Cowen is not the best man to lead the party. The "vast, vast majority" of Fianna Fáil TDs are not the wholly committed team players Brian Cowen talked about in Brussels last Thursday.

Under the party's rules, 18 members would have to sign a no confidence motion before a formal challenge could be put. This is unlikely. But the openness with which criticism is being voiced is a sure sign that many backbenchers now believe the game is well and truly up.

They interpret the reshuffle, to borrow the phrase of a previous coalition partner who caused them so much distress, "as the last sting of the dying wasp". The only way these TDs can conceive of salvaging anything is to disassociate themselves publicly and loudly in the hope that they can sell themselves to their constituents as independent thinkers.

People's expectations for change were never as high as the hype. Brian Cowen is notoriously cautious and also notoriously averse to playing the politics of perception.

But last Tuesday's effort was poor on every level. If it does reflect the sort of painstaking preparation, attention to detail and respect for due process that the Taoiseach is said to prefer over spin and public relations, if within it there is the bold political strategy for jobs and recovery that we all want, then unfortunately for the government, it is well hidden indeed.

On a purely presentational level, Brian Cowen's inability to communicate is alarming. A reshuffle announcement is a big deal in politics. Yet the Taoiseach's speech was poorly delivered and his demeanour diffident to the point of contempt. Reading the script in a flat monotone, as if all he wanted to do was put the details on the Dáil record, was an unforgiveable failure of leadership when the subject matter was so important.

This was his chance to communicate a coherent strategy for recovery. It was his chance to paint a picture of how the changes in the different departments will make the country work better. It might have given hope to those without jobs. Instead, we got more jargon. The changes he did make, instead of contributing to a coherent strategy for what UCD Prof Ray Kinsella has called "the hand to hand combat" needed to get us out of this mess, have added more layers of confusion.

It now seems that nobody's in charge of Fás, the one state body that needs a direct line of accountability more than any other. Nobody knows how it is going to be divided up.

Mary Hanafin's demotion was inexplicable, not because she has been particularly brilliant, but because she is a good communicator of difficult concepts. The deal with the Greens was all about staying in power and had nothing to do with promoting talent.

And the new public sector reform quango, the Public Service Board, may be the best thing that happened since TK Whitaker, but at the moment it's sitting there in the public mind as a half-formed idea that will be hobbled before it takes its first step because of its position as the child of two often warring parents in the form of the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Finance. If the last fight over a public sector reform package was anything to go by, we can expect the mother of all custody battles.

Given that public sector transformation was the priority policy of this Taoiseach when he first took the job, to say, as the Taoiseach did, that the pace of change needs to be accelerated, makes him look so out of touch with what's going on in the real world it is actually frightening.

But then, this is the government that fails to intervene effectively as cancer survivors queue overnight in the street and people lose thousands of euro on holidays they can't go on because of the passport office industrial action.

This is a Taoiseach who says he can't interfere when pay increases are sanctioned for 70 staff members in Anglo Irish Bank, when he knows the incalculable damage such a rise within the bank that broke the country will do to the public sector negotiations. By this logic, all nurses, teachers and public servants who are working a bit harder because of the recruitment embargo deserve a pay rise too. It's absolute nonsense. But it's the culmination of a stagnation at the heart of this government that the changes in ministerial personnel and reconfiguration of departments will do absolutely nothing to solve.

Kieran Mulvey, chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, described the problems in the public sector as "an industrial relations freefall". Rudderless and without any clear indication of who in the public sector will be the target for the €3bn being flagged for next year, lower paid workers are simply withdrawing their labour. Those nearing retirement age are leaving in their droves because they fear new taxes on their generous pension entitlements.

Nobody knows what's going on, or what's being planned for their future. Is it because there is no plan, or just that nobody is able to articulate it clearly?