Kenny sacks Richard Bruton from Fine Gael front bench
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny has sacked Richard Bruton as the party's finance spokesman and deputy leader as expectation grows of a looming leadership challenge.
The move against Mr Bruton, who phoned members of the party’s front bench at the weekend to sound out levels of support for a heave against Mr Kenny, means he will not be able to table a motion of no confidence in the leader at this week's front bench meeting, which will be held on Thursday.
Mr Kenny will put down a motion of confidence in himself at the meeting instead.
Mr Kenny has insisted he would lead the party into the next general election despite his poor showing in recent opinion polls. The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll last week showed Fine Gael in second place to Labour and Mr Kenny’s personal rating down seven points to 24 per cent.
Speaking this evening on RTÉ, Mr Kenny said the timing of the move on his leadership was “absolutely appalling” and showed “enormous political misjudgement”.
Mr Kenny said he could not countenance a situation where, facing into a no-confidence motion in the Government tomorrow, his deputy leader “sitting beside me was not in a position to offer support”.
He said that in the time of Charlie Haughey “PJ Meara couldn’t possibly have dreamed up a better distraction than this”.
Mr Kenny said he had “no option” but to dismiss Mr Bruton from his position as deputy leader and spokesman on finance following his failure to pledge his support to the Fine Gael leader.
In a statement released earlier this evening, Mr Kenny said he met Mr Bruton over the weekend during which his former finance spokesman "informed me that he is no longer prepared to support my leadership".
"I asked him to reconsider his position and to work with me to ensure that Fine Gael wins the next general election," he said.
“As the Dáil will debate a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach and Fine Gael’s motion on the banking inquiry this week, Richard’s decision leaves me with no option but to relieve him of his responsibilities as deputy leader and finance spokesperson with immediate effect."
The Fine Gael leader said he was assigning the finance portfolio to Kieran O’Donnell, deputy spokesman for finance, and that he would announce further front bench changes next week.
Mr Kenny accused some TDs and Senators of trying to divide the party. “Among the many huge challenges I faced when I was elected leader of Fine Gael was to heal the deep wounds left from previous internal conflict and leadership challenges,” he said.
“I have worked patiently and sensitively to bind the party into a cohesive and united team and I am very disappointed that a small number of colleagues are determined to bring Fine Gael back to those bad old days.
“I am determined that this should not be allowed to happen and I am happy that a huge number of my colleagues in the parliamentary party have publicly announced that they support my continued leadership of the party.”
Responding to his sacking, Mr Bruton said he did not believe Mr Kenny had the capacity to deal with the difficult problems faced by the country and said he would be opposing the motion of confidence in his party leader.
Mr Bruton said the Mayo TD had done “tremendous work” in reinvigorating the party but has failed to convince the electorate that he can lead the country. “I think the party now needs to make a change of leader to start afresh and build and convince people that Fine Gael has the capacity to lead change in this country for the security of our people who are under such stress at the moment.”
Mr Bruton said he believed there was a “clear majority” within the parliamentary party who would support him as leader in the event Mr Kenny's motion of confidence in himself was defeated.
Mr Kenny’s supporters claimed last night that he had the committed support of at least 42 members of the 69-strong parliamentary party of TDs, senators and MEPs.
However, Mr Bruton’s supporters continued to insist that there was a majority against the leader. Transport spokesman Fergus O'Dowd is the only one of the frontbenchers to so far publicly pledge their support to Mr Bruton.
Mr Kenny’s leadership was endorsed publicly yesterday by Mr Kehoe and fellow frontbenchers Phil Hogan, Alan Shatter, Dr James Reilly, Charlie Flanagan, Jimmy Deenihan, Michael Ring and Senator Frances Fitzgerald.
Another frontbencher, Simon Coveney, issued a statement through the Fine Gael press office that called for party unity. Leo Varadkar expressed support as recently as the weekend, but had no comment to make yesterday.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen said today he had no comment to make on Fine Gael’s internal matters. He also said he was confident the Government would win the confidence motion in his leadership in the Dáil tomorrow.
Senior Fine Gael figures today called for party unity and urged critics of Mr Kenny to “pull back”.
Speaking this morning, Fine Gael chief whip Paul Kehoe said nobody in the party wanted a leadership bid and appealed to Mr Bruton to avoid such an action. "You will have times when people get a little bit shaky, but this is not the time to have any sort of a leadership battle . . . if there were people wanting this, I'm sure they would have been out over the last number of days," he told RTÉ Radio.
"I'm sure that Enda Kenny will overcome any leadership challenge because he has the respect . . . Enda Kenny has had many electoral contests over the last number of years and he is proven in that . . . and there's only one poll at the end of the day, and that's in the local election, the European election, or the general election."
Mr Hogan this morning the people behind the leadership bid would have to come under scrutiny for their judgment and "political naivety". Asked if he thought Mr Bruton should be fired from the front bench, the environment spokesman said that was an issue for his party leader.
"My own view is that Mr Kenny needs a strong, cohesive, solid team behind him that are loyal to the party and are disciplined . . . the message we're sending out to the general public is that you shouldn't be put in charge of a septic tank, rather than be put in charge of the economy, if you're going to be wobbling on the basis of one poll."
Mayo TD Mr Ring also backed his party leader this morning. "We've had 20 wonderful polls over the last number of years . . . we've had two bad polls, we have to hold our nerve," he told RTÉ. "We have Fianna Fáil on the ropes, and really our target should be Fianna Fáil and to replace this Government as quickly as possible."
Meath TD Shane McEntee said Mr Kenny was in a very strong position with support of 90 per cent of the party.
Sligo-based TD John Perry said he was disappointed to hear of a leadership challenge and called on Mr Kenny to assert his leadership and control of the party "very decisively". Cavan/Monaghan TD Seymour Crawford also called for unity, as did Donegal TD Dinny McGinley, Clare TD Joe Carey, Galway East TD Paul Connaughton and North West MEP Jim Higgins.
The meeting of the party’s 69 TDs, Senators and MEPs will take place on Thursday and the voting will be by secret ballot.