Analysis: Kenny silence has created proxy war between his two big challengers

Different stances of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney revolve around timeline for Kenny’s departure

Taoiseach Enda Kenny: he has more cards to play with than one might think. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Slogging through Sunday newspaper articles on the Fine Gael leadership crisis that seemed as long as Victorian novels, the most noticeable thing was the complete absence of one voice: that of Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

To borrow a famous line from a book of that era, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, it was a case of "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time". In other words, the dog that did not bark.

Besides a cursory line last Thursday night about being focused on his work, Kenny has said nothing about his future or for how long more he wishes to remain as Taoiseach.

He has returned home to his constituency in Castlebar to consider his position. What his stance is nobody really knows other than his closest advisers, the most important of whom is his wife Fionnuala. His thinking on the matter will not be disclosed before Wednesday, when he addresses his parliamentary party.

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The silence has created an information vacuum. And because of it we have seen a proxy war being waged over the past few days between the two likely challengers to succeed him: Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

Most of the divisions revolved around timelines. Leo and his supporters were keen that Kenny walk the plank as soon as possible: Varadkar’s impatience was illustrated by an impromptu statement on Saturday night complaining that the ongoing uncertainty was “distracting and destabilising”.

Among the back-benchers are a crew of dissatisfied “irregular” troops who have been threatening a motion of no confidence. While disowned by the two camps, Varadkar’s supporters in particular have not had difficulty in pointing to that particular threat should Kenny try to dig his heels in.

Less combative

Coveney has seemed to favour a less combative approach. He has let it be known he will oppose any motion of no confidence.

“I don’t think people should be giving the Taoiseach and party leader ultimatums and threats at a time when Fine Gael are in Government and with the huge amount of challenges to deal with from the national perspective,” he said.

However, Coveney did make a significant move on Sunday on RTÉ's The Week in Politics. While Varadkar and his supporters have bristled with impatience (they were quick to point out the continuing downward trajectory of Fine Gael in the latest opinion poll, for example), it was Coveney who actually became the first to set out an actual deadline.

He told presenter Áine Lawlor: “My view is that the Taoiseach should go to Washington on St Patrick’s Day, and I expect the leadership within Fine Gael and the leadership in the country will be dealt with very quickly after that.”

Varadkar quickly responded that he agreed with the timeline set out by Coveney. Some who support him also believed that Coveney’s announcement was prompted by Varadkar’s statement of the evening before (Coveney’s people dismissed this as fanciful).

So an entente has been reached? Not quite. What Coveney is actually saying is that everybody in Fine Gael should cool their heels until Kenny returns from Washington. At that stage, and only then, Kenny would announce a transition process, which Coveney believes could take place very quickly.

Defied the odds

Some in the Varadkar camp were interpreting it as the change of leadership taking place within days of Kenny returning from Washington. That’s not the case. It will be mid-April. It could even by May.

And what of the dog that hasn’t barked? Nobody knows what Kenny will say. He has defied the odds all through his career, principally because his opponents have underestimated him. He famously wheeled the scrum in 2010 and won the Fine Gael leadership battle after he had been written off by just about everybody.

The circumstances are different now. He knows he is on borrowed time. He might cede to the inevitable. But then again he might test what his colleagues will tolerate? He will not actually name a date because that will immediately make him into a lame duck.

On the other hand, he might outline some key priorities that could take him into early summer, including the early post-Brexit negotiations. While some of his colleagues would bitterly resent such a long tapering period, would they be prepared to put it to a very risky (and divisive) motion of no confidence? Hardly. They would have to live with it.

Kenny has more cards to play with than one might think.