That was Micheál Martin’s promise to the Taoiseach at the Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis last Saturday. It’s a good line and a good point. But this election is still Kenny’s to lose. There may be no open goal but the ball is at his feet. This is the moment of ultimate pressure in Enda Kenny’s long career. Barring a cock-up, or a series of them of his own making, he has a better than even chance of returning as Taoiseach, in some arrangement or another. A campaign that succeeds in crystallising his narrative of chaos versus stability could propel him and Labour over the line with a narrow majority. For now, that’s a best case scenario. More likely, others will be required for a future Kenny-led government.
Few understand the extraordinary pressure on an incumbent Taoiseach leading his party into an election campaign. You are the bull’s eye — everyone aims for you. To unseat a Taoiseach in the ring is the ultimate prize for any journalist in a press conference, or interview. It is the avowed aim of his opponents in every debate. Everything is at stake. Returning to office in 2016 cements Fine Gael’s acquired role as the natural party of government. It would seal Kenny’s position as the most successful leader of his party ever. The problem is voters do not think in these terms. It is their own future, not Enda Kenny’s place in history which preoccupies them.
The challenge of the campaign will be like no other for Kenny. It is his first as an outgoing Taoiseach with a record to defend. In 2007 as Fine Gael leader he led an apparently successful challenge for much of the campaign. Bertie Ahern and Fianna Fáil were not only on the ropes, they were on the floor. Their campaign didn’t so much recover, as survive. By the end, it was ahead less because of its offering, but because Kenny’s challenge has fizzled out. In 2011, Kenny did have a coronation of sorts. But the remnants of the Fianna Fáil–Green government if still in office — the Greens in fact had actually left — was in freefall. The circumstances were unprecedented.
Now we are back to a sort of politics as usual. A small swing will make the difference. The campaign will matter intensely. The latest round of interminable opinion polls begs the question of whether the Government’s recently acquired momentum has fizzled out. But the slip for Fine Gael, if there has been one, is within the margin of error. My strong sense is that, as of now, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are set to have good results.
That means more seats for the two opposition parties. For Fine Gael it demands that it can contain its losses. The open question for Fine Gael is Labour. It could win the battle but lose the war on its left flank. That is precisely what happened to it in 1997 when it was last in government. It gained seats but Labour losses saw it lose power. In 2007 its own promised breakthrough petered out, but it still chalked up significant seat gains. Labour couldn’t move the dial. So it was back into opposition for them, together.
Provided Kenny keeps himself and his own party on course, his future depends on his partners. Fine Gael in government would have been wiser to have treated them better. But it’s not over for Labour. They can survive and deliver. For Fine Gael the challenge is to ensure that talented TDs in marginal seats like Jerry Buttimer in Cork South Central or Paschal Donohoe in Dublin Central survive. Both, and some others add to the Fine Gael offering and make it a more interesting, rounded party.
For Donohoe the conundrum is especially interesting. He is fighting for his life in a three-seat constituency. Not only is his Dáil seat at stake, so is his cabinet seat. Michael Noonan says he wants to return to the Department of Finance. Whether that is posturing or fact, the ultimate choice will be Kenny’s. If Kenny, either immediately or in the future, wishes to have a new minister for finance, Donohoe would surely be on the shortlist. It may boil down to a handful of votes in obscure suburbs but a lot is at stake. It is not only about which party is in government, it is about the capacity of that party’s personnel to sustain the project years thereafter.
Second terms are grinding. Returning to government brings unhealthy institutionalisation. The political edge can dull, and energy sag. New ideas and fresh thinking become rarer. The intensity of the political cycle, especially in office means that with few exceptions most need the rest they are given soon thereafter. One of the problems for Fianna Fáil after 2008 is that if it had a wealth of experience and in Brian Lenihan some newly promoted talent, it was already deeply tired before the crisis arrived. It subsequently left office shattered.
Kenny’s real problem, if he is re-elected, begins on the day of the actual coronation when, after he receives the mandate of the people, he is nominated by the Dáil and appointed to the office of Taoiseach by the president. Then he returns to Government Buildings from Áras an Uachtaráin, closets himself in his office and summons down that long red-carpeted corridor those to be appointed to cabinet. This, should he enjoy it, is both the moment of ultimate achievement and crisis.
The achievement if it happens is obvious. The crisis — unless the cabinet-making itself is botched — will arrive more slowly but, inexorably. A Taoiseach retuned for the second time and, unless there is another snap election, one retiring during that term, in appointing his government, plays his last best hand. Politics is always future tense. Power is only temporarily loaned to those who can deliver, for those who give it. Once you have nothing more to give others start to give up on you. The moment of ultimate triumph, is ironically when power begins to be exhaled. Courtiers start to look over your shoulder, searching the room for who the future brings.
But we are ahead of ourselves. The question this weekend for Fine Gael is whether the party positions itself successfully to deliver not for themselves, but for voters. Another question is how Kenny survives outside the cordon sanitaire of government in a media mêlée he is uncomfortable with. Extraordinary success is tantalisingly close. So is the worst of all nightmares whereby his party does credibly and Labour survives but not sufficiently, even with others, to make up a new government. Then, answering a national ‘crisis’ — another term for heaven-sent opportunity — Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour and some others coalesce to form a national government.