Noel Whelan: Silly errors bring Enda Kenny’s leadership back into focus

Fine Gael would be wise to learn from recent party upheaval in British politics

Enda Kenny’s decision to reappoint Senator James Reilly as deputy leader of Fine Gael is one of a number of moves that undermined his position in recent weeks. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Enda Kenny’s decision to reappoint Senator James Reilly as deputy leader of Fine Gael is one of a number of moves that undermined his position in recent weeks. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

 

The transfer of power in Britain this week was so elegant in the end. After a fortnight of viciousness, back-stabbing, blood-letting and absurdity within the Conservative party, the leadership and the premiership passed from David Cameron to Theresa May in two carefully choreographed audiences with Queen Elizabeth on Wednesday afternoon.

The chaos over the leadership of the British Labour Party continues, however. At a bruising meeting of Labour’s national executive council on Tuesday it was decided that the current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, could contest a new leadership election without having to be nominated by MPs. That decision now looks set to be challenged in the courts.

Either way, the struggle over whether Corbyn survives is set to convulse the Labour Party for many more months, and could give rise to a permanent split and a reconfiguration of the British party system.

Here in Ireland the main Government party is at the start of a leadership change. While events in Fine Gael may lack the drama of those across the Irish Sea, the party would be wise to learn some of the lessons of recent leadership upheavals in British politics.

The central question often asked when a leadership challenges begin is whether the current leader will jump or will have to be pushed. More often than not the grounds just falls away from under them.

The ground collapsed under Enda Kelly last February. The government he led lost its historic majority mainly because the Labour Party imploded. Yet Fine Gael was also down significantly in seats and votes.

The party ran a disastrous campaign, and many of the campaign errors were made by Kenny or by those to whom he had given control of the campaign.

In normal times such an electoral setback would have precipitated an immediate leadership change. The circumstances after last February’s election were far from normal, however. Kenny managed to exercise the role of Taoiseach with appropriate constitutional dignity in a caretaker capacity for months and delicately oversaw his party’s engagement with both the Independents and Fianna Fáil about government formation.

At the end of that long and drawn out process he managed to remain as Taoiseach, albeit as head of a feeble Government.

Silly errors

The issues around Kenny’s leadership had not gone away, however, and were always going to resurface. They emerged again last week because of a series of silly errors.

The notion of an all-Ireland forum on Brexit was always going to be shunned by unionist politicians.

The controversy over the Independent Alliance Ministers’ insistence on a free vote on Mick Wallace’s Private Members’ Bill allowing for abortion in situations of fatal foetal abnormality exposed the weakness of the Taoiseach’s position in the current Government.

If that wasn’t damaging enough Kenny then further undermined his position within his parliamentary party by appointing Senator James Reilly as deputy leader of the party.

In theory the deputy leadership of Fine Gael is a decision exclusively for the leader, but for a weakened leader to give the position to a Senator rather than a TD, and to give the deputy leadership back to the man he had publicly sacked a few weeks earlier was just bizarre.

In the last two weeks criticisms of Kenny’s leadership, oft whispered in the corridors, have been spoken openly at parliamentary party meetings and even publicly culminating in a late-night statement from Kerry Deputy Brendan Griffin on Sunday. It looked for a moment like a heave against Kenny might have gained a head of speed.

Yet there was no public follow-up to Griffin’s gauntlet, and while some criticism were uttered from additional voices at Wednesday party meetings, for now the momentum against Kenny has stalled.

It has only stalled, however. Most of those who have publicly criticised Kenny may be from the disposed or disappointed but their concerns are shared privately even by some senior Ministers.

Patronage usually plays a role in buttressing the position of incumbent premiers. They can usually rely on a large contingent of “payroll vote” in the parliamentary party from those who owe their ministerial office to the leader or who hope for future appointment.

Promote or fire

Kenny has made his last round of ministerial appointments. The considerations now are not about who he could promote or fire but whether Fine Gael can work the current minority arrangement and whether it will be in government at all after the next election.

Kenny’s internal party position remains precarious. Leadership crises all have a similar anatomy and chronology. The only thing which varies is the pace of events.

The pace at which Fine Gael manages or mishandles its leadership change will exert considerable influence on the life span of the current Government and on its capacity to get anything done.

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