The leadership battle and the deal with FF have moved centre stage, writes Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
As all around began putting pen to paper on his political epitaph, Taoiseach Enda Kenny cut — not for the first time this week — a forlorn and lonesome figure in the doldrums of Leinster House.
Speaking at a sparsely attended finance and public expenditure committee meeting yesterday morning, Mr Kenny glumly outlined his department’s revised spending estimates for issues he is unlikely to ever oversee.
The awkwardly polite atmosphere was eventually too much for committee chairman and Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness, who passed on his condolences.
“I know these are difficult times and I wish you well,” he said softly. Blushing as he looked solemnly down at his desk, Mr Kenny responded by muttering: “C’est la vie.”
The ‘such is life’ response to the sudden outbreak of humanity in Leinster House helped to instill some decency in Mr Kenny’s ugly removal.
However, while dancing on someone’s grave before the last rites have even been given is far from appropriate, the reality is issues which have a direct impact on Fine Gael, long-standing ministers, the deal with Fianna Fáil and when the next election occurs can no longer be avoided.
Among the most pressing is how and when Mr Kenny will now depart.
After effectively seeing his grave dug for him by Housing Minister Simon Coveney and Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar on Wednesday evening, regardless of Mr Varadkar’s public claim to the contrary yesterday, the Taoiseach now has just days to say when he will step down — or be forced from office.
Party sources have indicated that — unless Mr Kenny unwisely chooses to fight his corner — this will either take place at the weekend or during Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.
Such a move will take the sting out of next Wednesday’s parliamentary party meeting as the decision will have already been announced, and allow Mr Kenny to protect his now battered image from further attacks by cloaking his plans with the paper-thin pretence of choosing to do so himself.
It should not, of course, be overlooked that allowing Mr Kenny to leave without a formal internal motion of no confidence would also allow his likely successors to avoid the well-worn adage that “he who wields the knife rarely wears the crown”.
While an immediate stepping down cannot be definitively ruled out, and has been sought by some back-benchers, it is far more likely Mr Kenny will remain for a number of weeks as his party puts in place a plan of action for the coming leadership change.
A 12-week period has been strongly mooted by senior Fine Gael figures, with the May leadership switch not only allowing Mr Kenny to remain past April 20 and thereby become the longest-serving Fine Gael taoiseach and give his party breathing space, but crucially also ensure whoever replaces him is not damaged by next month’s White House meeting with US President Donald Trump.
It is understood that Fine Gael headquarters is already drawing up plans for a three-to-four week nationwide hustings campaign for the expected leadership contenders to then come into play, with Mr Coveney, Mr Varadkar and potentially Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe among those to seek support.
Should a clear leadership favourite become apparent among TDs and senators — who hold 65% of the Fine Gael leadership vote — a small number of TDs have suggested a preferred candidate could instead be put to councillors (25%) and grassroots members (10%), limiting the risk of a potentially vicious public contest.
However, given the fact that reports yesterday claimed 30 TDs and senators currently back Mr Varadkar; 28 Mr Coveney; with 14 undecided, at this early stage it seems unlikely such a scenario will emerge.
Whoever replaces Mr Kenny will want to put their own mark on the party. However, it has been noted by one senior minister that changing leadership while in a weak minority Government dependent on Fianna Fáil “facilitation” for its survival means a “generational change” rather than policy reform is most likely — a move likely to end the ministerial careers of Michael Noonan and others.
The only question remaining will be how Fianna Fáil will react to it all. Despite repeated denials, Micheál Martin’s party helped to orchestrate the creation of a weak minority Government which has no real power.
The continuing leadership of Mr Kenny suited the party as it hamstrung its main political rival. However, now this situation is ending, Fianna Fáil must decide if it must pull everything down before Fine Gael starts its recovery.
For now, Fianna Fáil TDs insist they will remain loyal to the confidence and supply deal with Fine Gael, claiming a leadership change alters nothing as one was always expected. However, should Fianna Fáil continue to receive strong poll support over the next two weekends, the nagging view that the party needs to strike sooner than later will gain traction, with next month’s water report row or a pre-budget summer disagreement the perfect times to strike.
C’est la vie, non?
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