Fine Gael leadership saga risks damaging candidates
Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar will take a hit if they fail to take action on Enda Kenny
The public take it as a matter of course that politicians are calculating and ruthless in advancing their own ends, but generally pardon it as first nature of the species.
To be calculating without being ruthless is just devious.
To be both is to be a leader; nobody wants a fool or a pushover in charge of their country’s affairs.
In politics, as in the higher echelons of business and other walks of life, those who want something have to take it themselves.
For his 2,233rd day as Taoiseach, Enda Kenny was at his desk in Government Buildings at 10am. Today – day 2,234 – he becomes the longest serving Fine Gael Taoiseach, overtaking John A Costello, yet still shy of WT Cosgrave’s nine years and three months as Cumann na nGaedheal’s president of the executive council of the Irish Free State.
Many in his party wish that Kenny’s days can stop being counted soon, but are reluctant to take matters into their own hands.
There is concern among TDs and Ministers that the Fine Gael leadership issue will not be settled in a neat fashion
Those close to the Taoiseach say beating Costello’s record was never really a factor in his staying on as Fine Gael leader. Kenny’s primary concern, they say, was to be in position for the outset of negotiations on Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Friends of the Taoiseach believe the UK general election will not change his plans, and see the second week in May – the week beginning May 8th – as the most likely window for his departure, just after the Saturday, April 29th, summit that will formally adopt the EU’s negotiating stance on Brexit.
Yet there is still a concern among many TDs and Ministers that the Fine Gael leadership succession will not be settled in as neat a fashion as they hope.
They fear the Taoiseach will stretch out his tenure even further, and realise that action may need to be taken if there is further delay.
The primary actors are, however, seemingly afraid to be the ones to push.
The gentlemanly behaviour that has thus far characterised the affair has its roots in the failed heave against Kenny in 2010.
Where Kenny and his allies spotted danger months before the heave, the challenger, Richard Bruton, was woefully unprepared.
For Varadkar, the experience has primarily been rectified by a level of organisation from an aspirant leader arguably not seen since Charlie Haughey wooed the grassroots of Fianna Fáil.
Councillors receive friendly phone calls inquiring about their political wellbeing, and members swoon as he turns up to party events and seminars and asks intelligent questions.
Coveney, rapidly gaining on Varadkar to a point where he is now considered level in terms of support within the party, banked on his work on housing and settling the issue of water charges bringing him popularity.
Coveney has been blunt in his dealings with councillors. At a recent meeting with a group from one county, he said he would be running for leader soon and hoped they could support his candidacy.
But the greatest lesson learned by both men from 2010 seems to be that it would be a mistake to try to force a leader out, with nudging and hints now the order of the day.
Varadkar has said the departure timetable is a matter for Kenny himself, yet his supporters mutter that the media should put pressure on the Taoiseach, perhaps forgetting that the primary responsibility for leadership change in Fine Gael rests with those who want to lead Fine Gael.
The Dublin West TD seems to forget, too, that he welcomed Kenny’s commitment to deal with the party leadership “effectively and conclusively” after St Patrick’s Day.
Coveney, while speaking softly, is sending unmistakable messages. He first said Kenny should settle the matter after St Patrick’s Day, and Kenny said he would do so.
Kenny then moved the date to a point beyond the April 29th summit, and Coveney and Varadkar say they expect everything to be resolved by the summer.
Even the most wholesome of politicians need at times to show they can do what needs to be done
They will be damaged in the public eye if they allow the process stretch out even further and, against their own reservations, could be rewarded if they are forced into reluctant action.
Despite consistent utterances of the tired cliché about the crown never passing to he, or she, who wields the dagger, there are instances where decisive action against a leader has been rewarded. Albert Reynolds and Micheál Martin are but two examples.
The public’s estimation of Kenny himself vastly improved when he bared his ruthless side in dispatching the 2010 heave.
It is a necessary characteristic at the highest level of politics and one which the Taoiseach has shown on numerous times in government.
The public expect and can admire such a trait. Even the most wholesome of politicians need at times to show they can do what needs to be done.
Those who have worked with Kenny say he rates people who strove for what they achieved, the implication being that others such as Coveney and Varadkar have yet to step up.
The two Ministers will look weak, indecisive and scared of taking the action required to seize what it is they want if the whole Fine Gael saga is dragged out even further than they wish.
A failure to challenge Kenny, if he does not do as expected, would be the first failure of leadership for both. Fiach Kelly is politcal correspondent