Taoiseach Enda Kenny keeps them guessing on Fine Gael leadership
Can he confound his critics once again?
It is all about controlling the public conversation and setting the agenda. Taoiseach Enda Kenny knew what he was doing when, on the eve of the budget, he advised local Fine Gael members that he would fight the next election. That caused surprise because of an earlier declaration that he will not lead the party into the contest. What is going on? Is he following the lead of President Michael D Higgins and having second thoughts about his political future?
Life on the backbenches clearly does not appeal because, on Tuesday, Mr Kenny said he hoped to be Taoiseach for next year’s budget. That statement brought sharp intakes of breath from those Fine Gael TDs who have been demanding a timeline for his departure and from others who feel he will not step down voluntarily.
They accept that Fianna Fáil has offered a three-budget “confidence and supply” deal based on strict conditions. But they realise time is wasting and that a sudden Government collapse may hamper a leadership contest and leave Mr Kenny in control.
The decision by the Taoiseach to re-open such a divisive question may be linked to last week’s Irish Times/IpsosMRBI opinion poll that showed a recovery in Fine Gael support and an even greater corresponding decline for Fianna Fáil. Mr Kenny grabbed the opportunity to exploit the good news.
Mr Kenny declared in September that he would not “walk away” from his mandate as Taoiseach; he spoke of reshuffling the Cabinet in 2017 and staying until 2018. That intervention caused a ruckus and brought calls for his early departure. They were ignored.
Of Mr Kenny’s would-be successors, the favourite, Leo Varadkar has most to lose in this situation. A direct challenge could see Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald sit on the fence and bide their time, tilting the balance in Mr Kenny’s favour. But other considerations and backstairs deals may also come into play.
The Taoiseach appears determined to lead Fine Gael for the foreseeable future. Can he confound his critics once again?