As the now-failed British prime ministerial candidate Michael Gove knows only too well, when it comes to politics, whoever wields the dagger seldom wears the crown.

And while more than a few high-profile Fine Gael ministers have been coveting the Dáil’s answer to jewel- encrusted headwear in recent days, the for-now exiled Conservative MP’s lesson has not been lost this side of the Irish sea.

Over the weekend, as the crisis over when exactly Enda Kenny will step down as Taoiseach continued to engulf the Government, his most likely replacements were notably backing away from making the fatal cut everyone knows is coming.

With rumours of a no- confidence motion swirling around the backbenches, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar has said on three consecutive days since Friday that now is not the time for a leadership challenge and that Mr Kenny should decide when he is to depart.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney — who has carefully fashioned an image as a responsible minister overseeing water, homelessness, and other matters over the past week — was equally clear that while a race is coming “in the near future”, the “first shots” as one journalist put it to him on Thursday, have not yet been fired.

The other main potential contender, Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, ensured there was no room for misinterpretation on Saturday by saying Mr Kenny should not be “forced by anybody to outline a timetable”.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney
Housing Minister Simon Coveney

With Fianna Fáil also seemingly intent on helping the current Government to stumble on, for the moment at least, and with Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes saying “now is not the time for self-mutilation”, Mr Kenny may feel he is weathering yet another political storm.

However, despite the lack of any public push against Mr Kenny from his oh-so-supportive colleagues, in whose mouths of course butter would never melt, the remarks should not be misinterpreted as support.

As the comments were being made, it is worth noting that rumours that six backbench TDs were considering tabling a motion at Fine Gael’s parliamentary party meeting this Wednesday, seeking a new leader to be in place by the end of the year, while a number of backbench TDs were yesterday suggesting the summer recess would be the perfect time to announce an organised schedule for a handing-over of power.

It is possible that these issues originated entirely from backbench TDs. But you can’t help feeling there is more than an element of testing the interest in a leadership challenge in Fine Gael’s internal machinations right now, with potential future leaders happy to allow the questions to come from the backbenches while publicly still standing by, or at least near, their leader.

Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes
Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes

Speaking to the Irish Examiner yesterday, a number of TDs said that the real reason behind the apparent backing-away by potential future leaders to issuing a fatal blow to Mr Kenny is that they want to give him a dignified political death while avoiding any of the blame for a bloodied scene.

If he is to go, it should still be on his terms, they believe, and preferably with minimal kicking and screaming.

The reality is that all leadership contenders want Mr Kenny to bring an end to the questions and confirm when he will depart. Unlike Mr Gove, they understand the need to avoid being seen to stab a colleague in the back, especially when a gentle nudge will do.

As Ireland’s longest-serving TD, Mr Kenny will know better than anyone that, regardless of public support, in politics, someone only hugs you to see how wide to dig the fast-approaching grave.


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