TERRY PRONE: Cowen needs to prove — and fast — that he is a true ‘Daddy’ figure

IN THEORY, after the past week or so, Brian Lenihan should be in a corner, wearing a dunce’s cap. But Brian Lenihan may have a touch of Bertie’s Teflon, because, for some reason, he hasn’t attracted the worst of the odium.

People seem willing to smack him aside as having been put in the job by the Taoiseach, who therefore carries the can. Or maybe it’s because of his good track record as Minister for Justice. Or perhaps because he has stayed so earnestly civil, under daily attack.

It doesn’t matter. It’s Brian Cowen who’s attracting the odium and carrying the can.

Not on his own, it must be admitted, after yesterday’s Sunday Business Post Red C poll. That dropped the Fianna Fáil lift, if not quite to the floor, indubitably to a level lower than it has ever skidded to since polling began.

Up, on the other side, went Fine Gael with such speed it must be a little dizzy to find itself statistically outstripping the Soldiers of Destiny, even if that party currently has a lot more soldiers on the floor of Leinster House. Fianna Fáil currently has the bodies. But Fine Gael and Labour have the vital signs.

The idea that our Brian, King of Heartland Fianna Fáil, could be rejected by the plain people of Ireland, not to mention the plain old people of Ireland, is a serious gobsmacker for his Fianna Fáil colleagues. This is the man the country was waiting for after years of Big Soft Bertie. The straight-talking, witty, big brain. The man who moved even the cynics in his party by the speeches he made after his accession, and the commitment within them to do his level best. The man they liked. The man they still like.

That’s one of the important factors not to be missed in addressing the current disaster. Most of the cabinet continue to like Brian Cowen. While some of the oldsters may make mention of the Fianna Fáil pattern of a marathon Taoiseach like Bertie being followed by a short sprint merchant like Albert, no secret meetings are currently in progress to oust Cowen.

Of course, the prospect of being in charge of a slaughterhouse does tend to dampen ambitions just a bit. Cowen’s situation is helped by the fact that nobody in their right mind would want to take on the task of managing the unmanageable. Indeed, from his point of view, the great advantage of having potential pretenders to his throne around the cabinet table is that every one of them knows precisely how bad the finances are — and, just as importantly, knows that the general public does not yet know how bad they are, although they’re beginning to get an inkling.

When a private school loses several students because their parents have gone bankrupt, when black jokes are made about getting out of the 1% levy because you’re on protective notice, and when trying to flog some old jewellery begins to be talked about as a good idea, the general public are certainly fumbling around the edges of full financial understanding.

Which is why Fine Gael will be hugging itself today after its poll triumph, but not planning a general election in the immediate future. Not even Fine Gael, with its oversized sense of public responsibility, would go down that road. You don’t push hard for the job of captain of the Titanic directly after the iceberg has ripped a hole in the vessel. You just hum along with the orchestra as it plays Nearer my God to Thee.

That said, the faithful surrounding this Taoiseach are as edgy, these days, as everybody’s pet labrador at Hallowe’en: they never know where the next flashbang’s going to come from, and they’re beginning to wonder about Brian’s capacity to manage them.

The emerging reality is this. Brian Cowen approaches a crisis the way Bertie Ahern approached a question. Sideways.

Bertie knew that a straight answer to a straight question had its benefits. He just didn’t think they applied to him. So he responded to every incoming question with a string of mutually unrelated words that sounded as if they might amount to a sentence if you rearranged them for him. But the endeavour looked so heartbreakingly tiring, most of us decided not to bother.

Plus, he was doing other things like achieving peace, getting the SSIAs paid out and keeping us wealthy.

Brian Cowen wasn’t going to be like that, we knew. We were out of the era of soft waffle and into the era of direct-talking action. And for a while there, we thought we’d been right. It was so exciting, the night Our Brian sent a message to RTÉ — “Hold the front page [or the TV equivalent], I’ll be right over.”

Except that he went decisively on the nine o’clock news and at the end of it, none of us knew whether it was Christmas or Tuesday. The elderly people planning to get their duffel coats on and warm up the Zimmer frames certainly hadn’t a clue what he’d meant.

That’s because Brian does a high-end version of Bertie’s incoherence. Bertie took phrases we all understood, like “upset the apple cart” and turned them into phrases nobody could understand but everybody kind of liked, like “upset the apple tart”. Brian just takes phrases none of us can understand and hits us with them, hard and repeatedly.

“We have stayed within the budgetary parameters,” he told us last week.

Now, think about that. Let’s say you’re a patient, ready to have your left leg amputated because it’s riddled with gangrene. The anaesthetist sends you to La La land and the surgeon mistakenly cuts off your right leg. When you surface and find yourself possessed of only one leg, and it is still reeking of rot, and you get a bit shirty about the situation, the surgeon tells you he stayed within clinical parameters. To which the answer is “Tulip, if you’d taken off the right leg, I might listen to you talking twaddle, but now I’m legless, talk English or else.”

Mary Coughlan copying Brian made it worse. She warbled the “budgetary parameters” line last week so often that Matt Cooper got ratty and told her three choruses of it was enough.

Mary Coughlan’s plight is symptomatic of a wider malaise within the cabinet. The “When will Daddy come home?” malaise. The Daddy of a cabinet in tough times has a firm reassuring hand and tight management ability. He doesn’t allow loyal Fianna Fáil ministers to go on media firmly holding the line, not knowing the line is history.

The Daddy doesn’t rush out to RTÉ to say nothing at extreme length and then nearly go to China, get second thoughts, send Batt instead and then follow him, only to admit to the first microphone that presents itself to him out there that, yes, his authority is dented.

His cabinet colleagues (of all parties) desperately want Our Brian to become the Daddy. They hate the fact that yesterday’s poll put a deadline as tight as a noose around his achieving it. But they still hope he’ll do it.

Correction.

They desperately hope he’ll do it.


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