An Taoiseach Brian Cowen will go toe-to-toe today with rebel ministers in the fight for leadership of Fianna Fáil, after reports that Finance Minister Brian Lenihan will back the Taoiseach.
The Irish Examiner says today that Mr Lenihan is expected to make his announcement of support after today’s cabinet meeting and before TDs cast a secret ballot on the motion of confidence, and that his move is likely to convince a bloc of his allies to do likewise.
Both Mr Cowen and the number one challenger, Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, claim they have the support to take control.
The Taoiseach secured the backing of transport minister Noel Dempsey but senior Cabinet colleague Mary Hanafin refused to declare her hand.
Tourism Minister Hanafin – herself a potential leadership candidate – is expected to reveal her voting intentions today.
The parliamentary party meeting will start at 5.30pm in Leinster House.
Mr Cowen will break with tradition and put forward a motion of confidence in himself as leader of Fianna Fáil.
The party has 72 TDs but Ceann Comhairle Seamus Kirk will not vote and it is believed that Justice Minister Dermot Ahern will also not vote, as he is recovering from a hip operation, meaning a total electorate of 70.
(*NOTE: Minister Ahern has declared he is in fact keen to vote, see later story on this topic…)
Fianna Fáil has said 36 votes will be required to pass or defeat the motion of confidence in Mr Cowen.
However, the party was unclear last night what would happen in the event of a tie at 35 votes apiece.
Party chairman John Browne, general secretary Sean Dorgan and Government Chief Whip John Curran will meet this morning to draw up the rules for the vote in the event of a tie.
They will also decide on two tellers for the vote, who will be "elder statesmen" of the party and acceptable to both sides.
Mr Cowen said Fianna Fáil was in a fight for public support and that he was the fighter it needed.
“I remain confident obviously of the outcome,” Mr Cowen said. “I think my decision to have a confidence vote will enable us to put this matter to rest once and for all for the foreseeable future.
“From my point of view, it is clearly the case that the settled view of the party is that I should lead Fianna Fáil.”
More than half the voting TDs declared their hand and although up to 20 would not discuss their intentions or did not return calls, Mr Cowen insisted he had the numbers.
Mr Martin claimed a change in leader would put fire in the belly of party workers and supporters.
He said there had not been a “heave” in the traditional political sense but that senior party members wanted Mr Cowen to move aside.
Mr Martin also claims to have the backing of fellow Cabinet members.
Government chief whip John Curran rejected his assessment.
Ms Hanafin – herself a contender for the leadership – also refused to reveal her hand until today.
“I’m not in the business of trying to influence what members of the party think,” Ms Hanafin said. “If there is a vacancy I would be interested in contesting if that is the wish of the party.”
Mr Dempsey, who is retiring at the looming election, gave Mr Cowen a further boost by giving him his support.
Mr Martin had offered to resign as Foreign Affairs Minister on Sunday as the leadership crisis deepened. That offer still stands, according to the taoiseach.
Mr Cowen said: “It’s a matter for the Taoiseach in the aftermath of that decision to decide what’s best. I don’t want to make or indicate what the outcome is until such time as we have had the vote.”
Concerns over the Taoiseach’s leadership came to a head in the past week after he was grilled publicly in the Dáil on Wednesday on his contacts with former Anglo Irish Bank boss Sean FitzPatrick.
Under pressure, he revealed the names of two other business chiefs who joined him and Mr FitzPatrick for a post-golf match dinner in Druid’s Glen, Co Wicklow - Gary McGann, chief executive of Smurfit Kappa, who was a director of Anglo at the time, and Alan Gray, an economist appointed to the Central Bank board by Mr Cowen.
Mr Martin said the revelations were not a concern. The Taoiseach also said colleagues did not tell him they were an issue.
But opinion poll ratings are.
Voters are expecting a general election in the next three months with March 25 the anticipated date.
Fianna Fáil sits at a record low of 14% and faces a virtual wipeout.
Former Defence Minister Willie O’Dea, who resigned last February and was once an ardent Cowen supporter, said he could not support the Taoiseach.
“The overwhelming feedback is, that with Brian Cowen leading us into the election campaign there is an unacceptably high risk of electoral annihilation,” Mr O’Dea said.
Mr O’Dea said he was willing to gamble on a new leader.
Agriculture minister Brendan Smith is backing the Taoiseach. Other Cabinet members to have declared for Mr Cowen include tanaiste Mary Coughlan; social protection minister Eamon O Cuiv, although he has also expressed leadership ambitions himself; enterprise minister Batt O’Keeffe; defence minister Tony Killeen, Gaeltacht minister Pat Carey; and children’s minister Barry Andrews.
Mr Curran is also on side.
Junior minister Billy Kelleher and up to 10 backbenchers declared for Mr Martin yesterday.
Today’s vote of confidence dispenses with normal Fianna Fáil procedure with the Taoiseach putting forward a motion himself. Under normal Fianna Fáil party rules, a leader would only face a vote on the leadership if a parliamentary party member put forward a motion of no confidence.
There would have to be support from 18 TDs before it could be accepted.