Just how many last chances are Fine Gael going to get?
The now eight-week-old Zappone affair continues to dominate the political agenda, with the Government facing into a motion of no confidence in Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney in the coming days.
I remember in late 2019 when the Opposition tabled a motion of no confidence in then housing minister Eoghan Murphy.
After a bruising debate, which at times was very personalised and vitriolic, there was a break in proceedings as the walk-through vote in the Dáil chamber proceeded.
I was sitting in the press gallery in the chamber and watched as Murphy stood alone, looking crestfallen. Broken.
It was a visceral reminder of how brutal and lonely politics can be.
Coveney can expect similar treatment from TDs hell-bent on exploiting his ‘mistake’ for maximum discomfort.
In the days when we as a country should have been talking about his chairmanship of the United Nations Security Council in New York, Coveney’s week has been dominated by what he described as “distractions back home”.
While the issue at the core of the saga is a minor part-time appointment, the true scandal here has been Coveney and Fine Gael’s utter failure to kill this off long before now.
Botched messaging, disastrously tetchy media interviews, and then his appearance before the Oireachtas committee all served to prolong this ‘melodrama’.
Yet, this episode has demonstrated a catastrophic lapse in judgement and while he will survive this no-confidence motion, his standing is badly damaged.
Whatever about the damage done to Coveney, it has also placed a great strain on inter-party relations in Government.
Speaking on RTÉ radio, Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan offered what has been to date the best articulation of the anger within his party over the affair.
Blasting what he called a Fine Gael omni-shambles and incompetence, O’Callaghan gave voice to the latent perception that Leo Varadkar and his ministers were treating the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil with contempt, knowing that Micheál Martin was unlikely to do anything about it.
O’Callaghan’s intervention had a clear impact, as evidenced by Public Expenditure Michael McGrath’s outing on radio yesterday on this issue. “It shouldn’t have happened; a marker has been laid down; it was a line in the sand and it cannot happen again,” he said.
This is remarkable when you consider that Martin, McGrath, and Fianna Fáil did not stop the appointment from going through back in July.
However, as Fine Gael TDs, senators, and MEPs head to Trim tomorrow night for their think-in, the Zappone affair will have reinforced the reality that all is not well with the Blueshirts.
Far from the unified, energetic party that Varadkar took charge of in 2017, the Fine Gael of 2021 is deeply lethargic, demoralised, and fraying with internal recrimination at a level not seen since Enda Kenny’s final year.
What is clear from my conversations with many TDs this week is that the aura and myth of Varadkar’s supposed special qualities has been exposed.
Just as Martin was confronted by the failures of his party at the 2020 General Election and the Dublin Bay South by-election, Varadkar and his leadership are to face similarly awkward questions.
Having been elected in 2017 on the promise of being a hit with the electorate, a Fine Gael Bertie Ahern so to speak, in reality, Varadkar’s record at elections since taking office is dismal.
The recent loss in Dublin Bay South means his record as leader is now five by-election defeats, a general election reversal, and poor 2019 local elections which saw Fianna Fáil remain the largest party at local level, all of which means he is now in a defensive position in a way he has never been before.
During his time as Fianna Fáil leader, Ahern was forgiven a lot by his colleagues, who saw him as a winner. Varadkar, a serial loser, no longer has the protection of time that his colleagues were once prepared to give him.
Yes, they are due to take back the Taoiseach’s office in 2022, but TDs and senators are increasingly concerned about what impact staying in power will have on their electoral chances come 2024 or 2025.
The mess of the Zappone affair and just how badly damaged the party is from it all will undoubtedly dominate the two-day event.
What has been remarkable is the deep reluctance of Fine Gael ministers, senior and junior, to come out and defend Coveney or Varadkar’s role in all of this. The ever-dependable “minister for defending the indefensible”, Colm Brophy, has been the exception.
Such a reluctance by ministers and other senior party figures is as clear an illustration as you need that all is not well and there is a gulf between the leader, his ministers, and his TDs.
The sense is: “Why should I defend him when he treats his own like this?” What is also clear is that relations between Varadkar and Coveney are again under strain on foot of the Zappone affair.
Varadkar, clearly annoyed at the fallout from the appointment, has sought to exact his own peculiar version of revenge by — as some see it — hanging Coveney out to dry.
If Coveney does survive, he will know just how little his own leader has done to help him.
What also continues to annoy members of the party and no doubt will feature in conversations in Trim was the “mini-sting” operation by a junior minister to try and figure out who was leaking from Cabinet.
The manner in which that issue was fed to the media and played out has angered a considerable number of TDs who to a man and woman said it made the party look ridiculous.
That suspicions around who the leaker was also illustrate a level of paranoia at play within the higher echelons of the party.
While they felt the need to enter Government in 2020 to avoid a second election, the down side and cost of that decision are coming to the fore now.
Between Varadkar’s own leak issues and the ongoing criminal investigation, and now Coveney’s difficulties, just how much more of this are Fianna Fáil and the Greens expected to take? How much more of the amateur stupidity is the country going to have to endure from Varadkar’s Fine Gael?
Patience is certainly wearing thin.