There is a rule attributed to Alastair Campbell about when the damage from a political scandal becomes irreparable.
If eleven days after the intitial controversy breaks in the media, the story is still being kept alive and prominent in the media, then the politician is a goner.
Two decisive moves yesterday have halted Brian Cowen’s slide. By my calculation, it happened on day eight.
The obvious one was the B&B press conference at the steps of Government Buildings. The semiotics of it were obvious. Flanking the Taoiseach was the most senior member of Government (Mary Coughlan’s title of Tanaiste is being treated more as an honorarium these days); his most obvious rival for the top job; and the man increasingly seen by many rank and file TDs as the moral authority of the party. Lenihan more or less ruled himself out for the job (but only for now – he still harbours ambitions). Cowen’s performance was lively, human, to the point and jargon free. Crisis averted.
Some newspapers are still forcing the issue today with news stories composed of (the newspapers’ own) value judgement and the usual alarmist prose (beleagured, embattled, revolt etc..). But it’s over for the moment, as far as I can read it.
But that’s not to say that this is merely a pause in hostilities and we may see the crisis for Cowen returning with a vengeance on day 10 and 11 when the first of the autumn newspaper polls arrive. If they are even more abysmal for FF and for Cowen than already abysmal polls, the muttering may begin again.
The second event that was decisive yesterday was the statement from Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy Rae. Their message: No Cowen as Taoiseach equals No Suppport from the two independents equals General Election.
“That put the sheep back in the pen quick enough,” said one of Cowen’s outspoken backbench supporters when describing fellow TDS who are nervous about their seats.
The threat from Lowry was enough to drive back some of the middle ground mutterers. At the back of their mind, they think that Cowen will lead the party into oblivion. But they also know that if Lowry withdraws support, a change in leadership is Apocalypse Now rather that Apocalypse in February or March 2011.
So the immediate threat to Cowen has been averted. And once again he has learnt his lesson and has promised to do better. As he did in front a parliamentary party meeting in July. As he did earlier this year when John McGuinness challenged his leadership. As he did in May 2008 when he told Sean O’Rourke that he would mend his ways.
It’s been a strange period. For Brian Cowen. For Irish politics. And on a much more humble level, for me.
I have been on parental leave for the past few weeks (we had a baby daughter, our first) and so have been in the very unusual situation (in the odd moment between nappy changes and hoarse lullabies) of being a consumer rather than a conveyor of political news and opinion.
Managing a political crisis is like trying to contain a highly contagious disease. Everything has to be isolated and contained. One microscopic germ escaping can spell danger and the further spread of contagion. Thus Dermot Ahern gave an interview on RTE’s Six One last week where he backed Cowen without equivocation and without qualification. But in the course of the interview, he admitted that some TDs had approached him with their concerns. What had been intended as a senior minister giving stout support to the leader became a different type of story. It became a story about unhappy TDs looking desperately for a champion to oust the king. Ahern didn’t set out to do that. But that was the consequence.
Of course, that was unfair. But nothing in politics is fair. Fianna Fail in opposition (and Cowen was to the fore here) were brutal and cruel. Fine Gael has been partisan and pointed this week. Simon Coveney’s tweet was very nasty. He compounded it by never apologising for using the word ‘drunk’. He said he accepted the Taoiseach’s word for it. Which wasn’t the same.
Cowen was not the first politician to give a morning interview after a heavy night before. I have seen leaders of other parties and senior politicians doing early morning interviews after socialising until 4am and even 5am the night before at Ard Fheiseanna. Of course, they were opposition leaders. And they pulled it off without sounding groggy or slury. And they weren’t the Taoiseach of the country during an unprecedented crisis.
It’s not fair. None of it is. Political life is ugly, brutish and short. The media are piranhas. The slug-line is Talk to Joe. It should be Stalked by Joe. And by everybody else, including the sober and upright ones (like ourselves!). And once a feeding frenzy begins, it’s very very difficult to halt the slide.
This is particularly the case fo the tabs and the mid-markets. How did the Irish Daily Mail report it as a FACT that Brian Cowen had consumed eight pints of lager that fateful night. When you read down the text, it was a guesstimation based on the average consumption of pints over an eight hour period. The Irish Daily Mail didn’t have a clue how much he drank. He could have drank far more. He could have drank less. They decided to conjure up a figure and present it as a FACT.
Is there any comeback? Nah. When it’s open season, it’s open season.
Of course, the central indisputable fact is this: Cowen was up until three o’clock in the morning and sounded rancid on the radio next morning.
And for not having the discipline to go to bed early and trying to burn the candle at both ends, he was the author of his own misfortune. In his job, at this time, there is no margin for error.
The subtext for the story was obvious. Since becoming Taoiseach (and before) there has been a question hanging over his alcohol consumption. On my rare foray out of the bubble to encounter civilians, the question most ask about Cowen is about his drinking. The answer I always give is I don’t know. He likes his pints but his drinking is done in private, mostly away from the media and others. The late night at Galway opened the floodgates.
Cowen’s performance on Morning Ireland was rank. It was a snowblind waltz, a man flailing blindly towards a destination.
That should not have been surprising.
I have long said that Cowen’s huge reputation as a politician has been based on a tiny number of stellar performances interspersed with countless and endless mediocrities.
My first real interview with him was in 2002 when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs. I learned to my shock that the man could be mind-numbingly boring. And so careful. He conceded nothing, never expressed a personal opinion. He essentially delivered an Iveagh House technical briefing paper on United Nations resolutions in a monotonous voice, with no pause for breath. I was trying to find out whether he supported the US and British plan to invade Iraq. He spend the whole of the interview kicking for touch, being non-commital and ambiguous. I borrowed an old line of Declan Kiberd’s to describe the encounter: “If Brian Cowen was in the Garden of Eden he wouldn’t bite the apple, he’d merely lick it.”
I can count on the fingers of two hands Brian Cowen’s moments of utter brilliance in public life. Some were telling, like his intervention in the General Election campaign in 2007 when he came to Bertie Ahern’s aid and demolished Fine Gael’s economic policies. There was his March 2003 speech in the Dáil on the invasion of Iraq (I disagreed with the sentiment but it was a great performance). There was the 17 and a half minutes speech to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce in 2009. And a few other from-the-heart performances.
Those who work closely with Cowen in Government say he is a very hard worker, a team player, very demanding and decisive. Problem is we don’t see it. Or if we do, it’s sporadically.
Cowen cuts a very negative persona in public. He’s always seems defensive and on the back foot. He is seldom dynamic, seldom bothers to deliver hope or vision. He goes through media interviews as if they are a burden and a bore, resorting to lazy meanignless technical language.
His supporters say he won’t play the media game. But he does play the game but lets others make up the rules . He does doorstep interviews and radio and TV interviews. And badly in most cases. Caution. Conservativism. They were the two words I always appended to Brian Cowen.
He has survived for now. But his leadership has been poor. How many times has he told people he is going to improve his communications, get out there with fire in the belly, face down his detractors, sell some hope and vision to the people. And how many times has he done that for a week or two and then lapsed into default monotony.
His supporters (including cheerleader in chief Batt O’Keeffe) argue that by his deeds shall you know him. But what he doesn’t get is that deeds in politics mainly involve talking and explaining and selling to your people. He’s the captain of the ship, not the engineer stuck way down in the hull.
He never grabs the initiative at media events. He seems to want to do as little media as possible.
Unlike other political leaders in Ireland and elsewhere, he has refused to do newspaper interviews. Besides one interview with The Sunday Independent he has not done a full interview with an Irish newspaper for almost two years.
The quandary for Fianna Fail is this. Any rival who replaces him will witness two things happening in quick succession. Firstly they themselves will become Brian Cowen. Secondly, they will find themselves caught up in an unwinnable General Election campaign.
The standard calculation is that any potential successor will wait until after the election to pick up the pieces (but none of the Cowen-~Bertie Ahern baggage). Problem is there may be no pieces to pick up. Fianna Fail might find themselves in a worse place than Fine Gael were in 2002, facing a generation of recuperation.
I believe it’s now too late for Cowen. This Government has about six months left and he has shot his bolt, has been a disappointment. He needs to pull off some kind of miracle over the winter to recover lost ground and lost reputations.
There is a school of thought that a fresh leader, put in place before an election, could effect some kind of a salvage operation and have something to work with.
That’s arguable. Look at the salutary example of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard in Australia. Gillard replaced Rudd and called a snap election. Did it make any difference ultimately? If it did, it was marginal.