Under-pressure Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny tonight secured the backing of his front bench amid the fall-out from the resignation of one of the party’s highest profile TDs.
Mr Kenny accepted the loss of George Lee was a massive blow, but was said to have received unanimous support from senior figures after a frank two hour parliamentary party meeting in Leinster House.
It had been suggested his leadership depended solely on the backing of respected finance spokesman and deputy leader Richard Bruton.
But Mr Kenny declared: “This party has never been more united.
“Of course there are people who do not like Enda Kenny, I understand that.
He told RTE Radio: “This is politics but for the good of the Fine Gael party and the policies that we pursue and the changes that we want to implement I‘m out there in front and will bring the entire parliamentary party with me.”
Earlier, Mr Bruton admitted he has leadership ambitions but in the same breath insisted he fully supported his leader.
“Clearly we have a problem and Enda has a challenge to manage that problem and I’m absolutely convinced he’s up to it,” Mr Bruton said.
“Clearly it’s a set back. It’s not the sort of day we want to be having.”
Mr Lee, former RTE economics correspondent, who clinched the Dublin South seat from Fianna Fáil last June, claimed he had not been allowed to make an impact on the party’s economic policy.
The shock move was widely seen as a major blow to Mr Kenny’s standing as leader and his hopes of becoming Taoiseach for failing to harness such a well-known and vocal TD.
Mr Lee, who was in Leinster House clearing his desk while the Fine Gael front bench meeting took place, said there had been mutterings of discontent over the leadership.
Nineteen members were entitled to attend the gathering, including Seanad leader Frances Fitzgerald, chief whip Paul Kehoe and party spokespeople.
Most of those attending remained tight-lipped on leaving, but most privately agreed that Mr Kenny received full support as leader.
The Mayo TD said the loss of Mr Lee was damaging but added that he did not want a message going out that people from outside politics cannot fit in.
“It is damaging and it is damaging for politics. It is sad for Fine Gael. It is sad for George Lee and I feel sad about it myself,” Mr Kenny said.
He also questioned whether the experienced commentator and economist was cut out for a life in politics.
Peter Kelly, Fianna Fáil TD for Longford and vice-chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Communications, said people should not be allowed to return to RTE if a political challenge does not work out.
“If people leave RTE to enter politics they should not be able to flit back in the door if they cannot cope,” Mr Kelly said.
Mr Bruton said there was a feeling of dismay and disappointment expressed towards Mr Lee’s decision to quit after just eight months in the Dáil, and he accepted the move had hurt the party.
He also rejected claims that he felt threatened by Mr Lee given the latter’s economic expertise and that he looked forward to having him on the front bench.
“No, it has damaged the party, but Fine Gael has been making huge progress,” Mr Bruton said.
“We have been very successful under Enda Kenny’s leadership.
“This is a reversal for him and one that he has to manage and he is going to do that.”
The deputy leader and finance spokesman said party members did communicate with one another but it was naive to suggest party spokesmen would be keeping in close contact with TDs.
“George never expressed an inkling of his discontent to any person that I’ve spoken to,” Mr Bruton said.
“There’s not one member of the front bench that said George was uneasy, that he was not having his voice heard.
“There was no suggestion to anyone, not to me either.”