The knives appear to be out for Enda Kenny, even though his has been the most successful reign of a Fine Gael Taoiseach. It may come down to a graceful retreat or a much less dignified shove out the door, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell
It is often said a leader without followers is merely a man going for a walk.
After a week to forget for Enda Kenny, the most successful Fine Gael Taoiseach ever is now facing into the end of his time as leader.
Calls from throughout his party for him to signal quickly a timescale for his departure has shortened significantly the process of departure.
Yes, he stands a badly damaged and isolated figure and his bizarre decision to re-appoint failed TD turned senate appointee, James Reilly, as deputy leader is seen by many Fine Gael supporters as the “last straw”, as one TD put it yesterday.
However, notwithstanding his bad week, there is simply no appetite within Fine Gael for a heave.
Supporters of the main leadership contenders — Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar, and Frances Fitzgerald — said there is no benefit in moving against Mr Kenny at the moment and they genuinely want to allow him space to step down with dignity.
Clearly, the scars of the botched heave of 2010 still loom large but in Fine Gael they tend not to put the boot in as easily as their new best friends in Fianna Fáil.
However, it is clear that while they will tolerate Kenny taking some time, that time is limited.
Many TDs speaking to me said that they would prefer to know his views sooner rather than later, pointing to the summer recess as their preferred option.
Even some of Kenny’s most senior ministers have called on the Taoiseach to move quickly to minimise uncertainty.
Yesterday, chief whip Regina Doherty heaped pressure on her boss on local radio.
The Taoiseach must clarify the process for him stepping aside as Fine Gael leader to avoid confusion, she said.
Speaking on The Michael Reade Show on LMFM , Ms Doherty said the leadership issue must not become a distraction.
“Unless there’s clarification of the process laid out, there will be confusion. Otherwise you’re going to have me and the other 49 members of Fine Gael telling you something different until it is clarified,” she said.
“It would be fair if the Taoiseach clarified this so we could get back to normal,” Ms Doherty added.
However, the likely wiggle room granted to Mr Kenny brings up another aspect to this saga which has so far been overlooked.
Just how many people within Fine Gael still support him. Over 14 years, he has repeatedly rewarded loyalty over merit and ability.
Hence why people like John Deasy, Brendan Griffin, and Jim Daly have been overlooked repeatedly.
A rough calculation would show that half of the party have benefitted from his patronage and been given a promotion. Will that preferment be good enough to secure their support over the coming months?
However, as one political sage yesterday observed, if you put your trust in princes you will perish.
Mr Kenny, who has generally been tolerated as leader, rather than loved, will not be able to rely on his loyalists who realise change is in the air. They will not think twice about deserting him if they feel it is in their longer term interest.
However, whenever Mr Kenny does decide to go, the perceived wisdom is that Mr Varadkar will be his successor.
Several opinion polls, the latest in yesterday’s Irish Times, showed he has a commanding lead over his main rival, Mr Coveney.
Mr Varadkar spoke this week of his strong desire to lead Fine Gael.
“Of course I’d love to lead my party. I’ve been dedicated to it since I was 17 or 18 years old,” he said.
He too in recent weeks and months has engaged in a soft yet intensive campaign regarding TDs and senators.
He clears his Wednesday nights to ensure he is available to TDs as he feels it is important they have access to ministers.
This is a policy he has pursued since 2011 and it is also known that he made sure to ring most, if not all, Fine Gael TDs who lost their seats in the general election earlier this year.
He also reached out to those who tried and failed to make it into the Senate — all the time reassuring them that they have a sympathetic ear in him.
He has also has moderated his comments on abortion since 2015 in a bid not to alienate the more conservative elements in the party.
In addition, he has made a big play to ensure the new intake of TDs has been reached out to.
Having got tickets from Horse Racing Ireland, Mr Varadkar invited a small number of TDs to the Leopardstown Races on Thursday, a move seen as significant given the current events.
Invitees were asked via text from Varadkar, who promised a good time.
“Good music and good craic, hope you can make it, L,” went the text to some of the invitees.
A source close to Varadkar played down the significance of the meeting saying it was in the pipeline long before the events of this week took place. The source said he loves the races and he regularly goes with some TDs on a “purely social basis”.
However, it is clear that Mr Varadkar has a group of hard-core fans within the party, whose affection for him borders on worship.
They are getting itchy feet and they see it is their man’s chance to secure the leadership of the party and perhaps become the first openly gay Taoiseach.
However, Mr Coveney, while certainly trailing Mr Varadkar at the moment, has also been putting in the groundwork to court the support of his colleagues.
Supporters of Mr Coveney have said mr Varadkar may have had more chance to woo the backbenches given his is a department that isn’t the most demanding, whereas Mr Coveney has had a baptism of fire since becoming housing minister.
Water charges, the housing crisis, and bin charges have dogged his short tenure. Mr Coveney is seen as a safer pair of hands than Mr Varadkar and in the heat of a campaign, TDs and senators who will be key in deciding the new leader could be swayed by this. Mr Varadkar, by his own admission, may be too fiery and loudmouthed for some elements within the party and his capacity to go rogue at times has infuriated his elders.
Some have also referred to his “arrogance” and “lack of interest” during talks with the Independent Alliance after the general election.
Independent ministers like Shane Ross and John Halligan repeatedly highlighted Mr Varadkar’s unwillingness to engage with them during the talks and were he to become Taoiseach, how long could the current arrangement last amid such hostilities?
There is a real chance that a vote for Mr Varadkar is a vote for an early election, and this could be another reason why people may drift to Mr Coveney.
Another factor to consider is Fianna Fáil. Will it stomach supporting a Fine Gael led by Mr Varadkar or Mr Coveney?
Well, speaking to my colleague Elaine Loughlin, Michael McGrath made it clear any change would be destabilising.
“I do think that a change in leader or a change of Taoiseach could be a destabilising issue in the current arrangement. That’s quite understandable, if there were to be a change how would that be managed, what would the approach be of a new leader, are Fine Gael looking at changing leader as Enda Kenny remains on as Taoiseach until the next election? We simply don’t know,” he said.
Mr Kenny will be given some time to walk of his own volition, but if he is not careful, he could find himself pushed against his will.
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