The dramatic turn of events starkly contradicted the Taoiseach’s defiant insistence he faced no internal criticism despite leading the party to its most humiliating election defeat ever.
In a further blow to Mr Cowen’s grip on power, key international money market experts urged him to hold a snap general election to restore “moral authority” to the Government after the country’s credit rating was again downgraded – causing the euro to slump against the dollar.
The first displays of deep backbench resentment against Mr Cowen came as Education Minister Batt O’Keeffe cancelled plans to attend an EU meeting in Brussels so he could be in the Dáil for a crunch vote of no confidence in the Government Fine Gael has tabled for tomorrow.
Though rebel TDs were still not yet prepared to go public with their attacks on Mr Cowen’s leadership, the Taoiseach is facing a rough ride at tonight’s parliamentary party meeting with one Dublin deputy insisting a crisis cabinet reshuffle would not be enough to stop the rot as he predicted Mr Cowen would be replaced in the top job by January at the latest. He said there is “very definitely a good deal of frustration and disquiet” among the parliamentary party. Asked if a cabinet reshuffle was likely, the TD said the change needed “will have to go higher than that” and predicted a new leader within six months.
Tánaiste Mary Coughlan refused to rule out a cabinet reshuffle stating “it is the Taoiseach’s prerogative to do what he needs to do”.
Another influential backbencher said a large number of FF TDs were desperate to be rid of Mr Cowen as they could not stomach an election with him as leader, but were waiting for a serious minister to signal a challenge with the feeling the Taoiseach would not survive the tax and cut December budget. “The sooner he goes the better,” he said of Cowen. “What we need now is a government minister to stand up to Cowen, for the good of the country, and tell him to stand down,” he added. The deputy was joined by other FF backbenchers alarmed by the scale of the defeat in the triple Euro, local and Dáil by-election showdowns which saw vote share collapse to just 25% – inducing an air of crisis and panic in the party. TDs fear FF is facing meltdown as it absorbed council losses of 80 seats and it was confirmed it had no MEP in the capital as incumbent Eoin Ryan lost out to Socialist Joe Higgins.
In the Dublin area, which accounts for nearly a third of all Dáil seats, the party’s support is in free-fall as it lags a distant third.
The rebel rumblings came as highly influential agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country’s credit rating to AA as Fitch Ratings said the country may need a general election.
“It may be that an election is needed to give a new government moral authority,” Chris Pryce, a director at Fitch insisted. The agency downgraded Ireland’s rating last April and still ranks the country’s outlook as “negative”.
The move is bad news for taxpayers as it means the country is forced to pay more interest on its massive borrowing. The latest cut from Standard & Poor’s was blamed on record losses at nationalised lender Anglo Irish, which will require a €4bn state capital injection, and concerns about plans for the National Assets Management Agency which is to soak up €90bn of bad property loans at the taxpayers’ expense.