There was a time when a challenge to a party leadership happened in two ways.
The first was the modh direach method. That was when somebody threw down the gauntlet and declared that the leader no longer commanded the support of the authority.
The second method was the whiskey and revolver scenario. That was when the men in grey suits – or grandees as they are pretentiously called in Britain – visited the leader’s room and told him that the writing was on the wall. They then withdrew discretely, leaving a figurative glass of whiskey and revolver on the table.
In Fianna Fail, the battle to oust Cowen is happening by a third method. It is called muttering
It has been very apparent for some time that there is clear unhappinness with Cowen’s leadership of the country and of the party. His people keep on saying that he’s spending every moment of every day doing heroics for the country, wearing a crown of thorns to enable his people return once again to the promised land.
The problem is that if he’s doing all that, nobody is any the wiser for it. His public appearances have been rare. And sporadic. And patchy. And his previous mediocre record as a lacklustre Minister for Finance is coming back to haunt him. I don’t doubt his honesty. But the problem is that even if he happened to have – by happenstance – shared a lift with Seanie Fitzpatrick or David Drumm going into some bankers’ event, that would be enough to hang him.
It’s tough. It’s unfair. It’s politics.
But you look at his troops in Fianna Fail and you wonder at the lack of bottle so many of his rivals have. It’s clear that the three potential leadership contenders are jockeying for position and that they are getting their troops into formation, in preparation for the battle ahead.
The very pointed refusal to express confidence in Cowen shows that Hanafin no longer supports his leadership. Neither of the other two contenders, Brian Lenihan nor Micheal Martin, have raised their head above the parapet publicly.
Both did go and speak to Cowen separately on Monday and told him that the situation was bad. My understanding is that neither explicitly told him that it was time to go.
Maybe they are conscious of what happened to Michael Heseltine in the late 1980s when he challenged Margaret Thatcher. It gave birth to the glorious phrase (that sounds Shakespearian but isn’t):”He who wields the dagger never wears the crown”.
What’s happening instead is a tectonic shift of the earth’s plates. It is called the middle ground of the Fianna Fail party shifting away from Cowen. We all know who the dissidents were but Cowen could rely on a core of TDs and Ministers – a clear majority – who were unhappy alright but not unhappy enough to give him the order of the boot.
But the spate of recent dismal opinion polls has been corroborated by them facing hostility on the doors. It hasn’t been helped by the Seanie Fitzpatrick revelations. At this moment of time, I think Cowen is a goner.
The timing is lousy for Fianna Fail. But then the timing in everything in politics is lousy. If Cowen goes, Fianna Fail will be left with a very complicated leadership arrangement where Cowen remains as Taoiseach and somebody else leads the party into an election. This is the last silver bullet available to the Taoiseach: he can argue that the confusion this arrangement will leave in the minds of voter will not deliver any bounce.
But the reality facing the party is that even if it happens it can’t be any worse than it is at the moment. Cowen has believed his fighting qualities – roused to heroic levels during election campaigns – could see them through. But they have been in evidence, they have not been in evidence enough, or just don’t impress in the way they once did.
So why is it all being dragged out? Well, as one Cowenite put it (and I apologise in advance for the earthy phrase): “The big question is does Micheal have the balls to do it?”
There’s a belief that Martin is too cautious and is too timid to mount a direct challenge and is hoping that other people will do his bidding. Is this true? Martin is far less circumspect these days than he was in the past but he is a Bertie-like waverer when it comes to making big hard decisions (smoking ban excepted).
I didn’t think earlier in the week it would come to this. But I do think now that Cowen will go. I spoke to a couple of his closest supporters yesterday and they were unsure; they felt that the middle ground – the bulwark of his support – was slipping away.
If it has, and there is evidence to back this, then my own guess is that he will take the hard decision himself and step down, paving the way for a leadership contest.
It will give the party a boost, enough to salvage some seats, and change the status of the General Election from total catastrophe to mere disaster.
At least in Fine Gael, all the muttering became a full-blooded battle. I just sense that Cowen no longer has the energy or inclination to keep on fighting. So in Fianna Fail, it looks like it will happen at subcutaneous level, almost imperceptibly, by osmosis.