THE Nama bill, the Lisbon treaty, cutbacks in government spend­ing of billions of euro and the most difficult budget in a generation – it's little wonder the next four months are being described as the most important the state has faced in at least a generation.

Whatever about the state, what happens between now and Christmas could make or break the government. We examine what lies ahead for the cabinet ministers charged with guiding the state through the recession.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen

The buck stops here. The suspicion remains that history will be kinder to him than current public opinion, but the next four months are crucial for Cowen if he wants to avoid having the shortest ever tenure as Taoiseach.

As political opponents go, the pharmacists weren't the most difficult, but Cowen set down a serious marker by resisting the whi­ning of his backbenchers during the dispute. He is going to have to show more of that steel in the coming months, as well as the political nous to keep the Greens and backbench TDs onside.

He has taken tough decisions as Taoiseach, but at times comes across overly cautious. He needs to adopt his 2007 general election 'bulldog' persona, tell it like it is and act accordingly.

Lisbon is his first hurdle and if he fails to clear it, it's hard to see how a general election can be avoided.

After that there are the small matters of Nama and the budget/ spending estimates. If he gets to Christmas still as Taoiseach, he should have some breathing space.

Pressure points: 10/10

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan

Lenihan has visibly grown into the job after a decidedly ropey start, but his biggest test lies ahead. An excellent communicator, he has been impressive in defending Nama. The worry is that the measures he will have to introduce are so unpopular as to be futile.

The public will never be convinced on Nama but he should get it through the Dáil; if that happens, watch how quickly it disappears as an issue.

The budget and estimates process are his biggest challenge. The cuts may not be as severe as in the Bord Snip report, but the state of the public finances means they will have to be pretty savage. Such is the level of cutbacks that a huge public backlash is inevitable, particularly over measures such as taxing child benefit and cutbacks in social welfare and education.

Lenihan seems to have the stomach for it but the backbenchers may not. Can he balance the requirement to maintain Ireland's commitment to restore order to the public finances with the political requirement to get the budget through the Dáil? If he can, his achievements will one day be regarded as up there with Ray MacSharry's spell in finance two decades ago.

Pressure points: 10/10

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin

He has only one job to do in the coming months but it's a huge one – lead the Yes campaign for Lisbon. As one of the best political performers on TV and a measured debater, Martin is up to the role. But he is also cautious and was one of those urging the Bord Snip Nua report be kept under wraps until after Lisbon on the grounds the bad news might scare the horses.

That would have been a huge mistake. The economic downturn is the biggest advantage the Yes side has. There is a strong argument that Martin shouldn't be afraid of bluntly spelling out the implications of a second No vote. Those who disagree with this viewpoint are concerned the electorate will feel talked down to. Martin has the communication skills to walk that fine line. He needs to win this referendum.

Pressure points: 8/10

Tanaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Mary Coughlan

There is some speculation that following on from An Bord Snip Nua, Cowen will rejig the government departments which would involve a new souped-up Enterprise Depart­ment, including energy and bits from other departments; Coughlan may stay become an old-style minister for labour.

She has been on the receiving end of some harsh criticism over the past year – some of it justified, some of it unfair – with her every word subject to ludicrous scrutiny. As a result, Coughlan won't be one of the frontline ministers defending the budget/cutbacks but will be in the firing line every Thursday in the Dáil when she fills in for Cowen.

Pressure points: 7/10

Minister for Social Welfare Mary Hanafin

With the social welfare budget set to be cut by €1bn, Hanafin is going to have a busy few months. Will she fight the cuts tooth and nail at the cabinet table or accept that they are unavoidable given the state of the public finances?

Hanafin faces the prospect of having to defend a 2% or 3% cut in basic social welfare rates and stand over a reduction in children's allowance, among other cutbacks. Her performance and willingness to take the heat for the team could dictate where she ends up after a possible cabinet reshuffle next year.

Pressure points 9/10

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern

Justice is never an easy department but Ahern will also have the added pressure of the Bord Snip Nua report and its recommendations for cuts in garda stations. That has the potential to turn into a major issue across the country.

As one of the better cabinet performers on television, he is also likely to be in the frontline defending government cutbacks and tax increases.

Pressure points: 6/10

Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea

The issues of further barracks closures and reductions in army personnel, as advocated by An Bord Snip Nua, is likely to give O'Dea a few headaches in the coming months. Alongside Lenihan, he is the most economically literate minister in the cabinet and will play a key role in batting for the government between now and Christmas. He will definitely be in line for a promotion if and when there is a reshuffle.

Pressure points: 6/10

Health Minister Mary Harney

Prematurely written off by many, Harney showed she still has fire in her belly during the pharmacy dispute. Few politicians would have held their nerve as she did. But she's going to need to be at the top of her game. The huge structural problems in the health service have been papered over by big increases every year in the budget. But those days are over and An Bord Snip Nua is proposing savings of €1.2bn which will be fiercely resisted by the vested interests in the health service.

Pressure points: 9/10

Minister for Environment John Gormley

Gormley's own department will present its usual challenges, but governmental and Green Party matters will present more worries for him in the coming weeks.

These are difficult times for the Greens. Nama goes against all their political instincts and the cutbacks, particularly in education, will be difficult for them to live with. There is also the not so small matter of having to renegotiate the programme for government with Fianna Fáil. With no money to spend (quite the opposite), it's difficult to see how the Greens can get enough from those negotiations to take to their members.

Then there's the key question: will the Greens be tempted to find an issue on which to cut and run from government? All the evidence to date suggests not, but the pressure is likely to build between now and budget day.

Pressure points: 10/10

Minister for Education Batt O'Keefe

O'Keefe is one of the ministers who will not be looking forward to the estimates process. An Bord Snip Nua's recommendations – increased class sizes, reduced numbers of special-needs assistants and English-language support teachers and other savings totalling nearly €750m – will be difficult to implement. Then there's the issue of the reintroduction of third-level fees, which will drive middle-class parents bananas.

The Corkman remained implacably calm during last year's row about cutbacks and will need to show the same skills around budget day.

Pressure points: 8/10

Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Eamon Ryan

Has taken to cabinet like a duck to water, so much so that there are mutterings from Green activists that he has "gone native". The criticism is unfair. He is willing to endorse and defend tough decisions taken in the national interest and has been one of the more impressive performers over the past couple of years. Ryan will presumably have a major input in the new carbon taxes. And, like Gormley, he will have a key role guiding the Greens through the coming months.

Pressure points: 8/10

Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey

Dempsey must be thanking his lucky stars Aer Lingus is no longer state-owned. He has enough to be going on with. He is on a collision course with the Fianna Fáil backbenchers over his plans to lower the limit for drink-driving. Some of the proposed cutbacks in An Bord Snip Nua – the ceasing of funding in the Rural Transport Scheme being chief among them – are also likely to prove politically tricky. Dempsey has the necessary streak of stubbornness to face down opponents.

Pressure points: 8/10

Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith

Hell hath no fury like a farmer scorned. Smith occupies what is likely to prove one of the toughest ministries this winter. An Bord Snip has proposed major cutbacks in various farm program­mes. In the past governments have not dared to take on the farming lobby, but these are extraordinary times. Smith could be in for a rough ride.

Pressure points: 9/10

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Eamon Ó Cuiv

The big question mark here is, after the recent report of An Bord Snip Nua, will this department continue to exist beyond early new year? The answer is almost certainly not. That doesn't mean O'Cuiv won't get another ministry but he is seen as being one of the most vulnerable in the event of any reshuffle of ministers.

Pressure points: 9/10

Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism Martin Cullen

Cullen will also feel the pressure in the event of a reshuffle, particularly given no arts minister has ever gone on to be appointed to another ministry. An Bord Snip also recommended "consideration should be given to the discontinuation" of this department. Either way, it would be difficult to see Cullen survive any cull of ministers as he is not particularly close to Cowen. The Waterford man will also have to deal with the arts world's ire at the inevitable cutbacks.

Pressure points: 8/10