The hope is for an orderly transition later in the year; the fear is a messy heave or contest will divide the party and bring down the Government.
Enda Kenny's leadership of Fine Gael has been brought into focus for a number of reasons, chief among which is the fragility of the Government he leads.
Some Fine Gael Ministers and TDs have looked aghast at how Shane Ross was allowed flaunt collective Cabinet responsibility and how Fianna Fáil demanded the resignation of Joe O'Toole as head of the commission on water charges, and ask how long this Government can last.
They know Kenny cannot lead them into another election, and the Taoiseach has already said he will not do so. A feeling that the election could come at any time leads to questions about the party leadership and challenges to Kenny’s authority. That challenge came at this week’s parliamentary party meeting from a number of TDs who have been overlooked by Kenny for preferment. They no longer fear him. He cannot give them ministerial jobs nor use party machinery to hit them in the constituency. Consequently, he is now fair game.
The Taoiseach’s judgment is also being questioned. From the failed proposal on an all-Ireland forum on Brexit, to the free vote on Mick Wallace’s fatal foetal abnormalities Bill to the reappointment of
as Fine Gael deputy leader, TDs look on and see someone who has lost his touch. Many, having suppressed their views while the Government found its feet, could not postpone the issue any longer.
Speaking privately, a number of senior Ministers said the events of recent days have brought forward the question of leadership. Simon Coveney publicly said it will be discussed in the "not too distant future, while some backbenchers explicitly said Kenny must set out his intentions by year's end.
Ministers expressed hope an orderly process can be put in place to allow Kenny step aside on his terms. The likeliest time is seen as the relatively quiet political period after the budget. It was stressed that a leadership transition should be handled in a way that minimises the divisions that have beset Fine Gael in the past.
“It would be a mistake to do it so soon after a new government has been formed,” said one Minister. “There will be a process put in place and we need to deal with it in a way that is dignified.”
It was stressed the party must be ready for a snap general election, particularly when the Government is so unstable. There was also a warning the Taoiseach should not hang on for too long.
Another Minister said the party “needs a plan” to prepare for transition. “Last week, with Brexit, there was a sense it [the Government] would last. This week, the Government has shown itself to be unsustainable.”
An unmanaged leadership contest or heave in Fine Gael would cause huge damage to an unstable Government, it is claimed. “It is better that it doesn’t happen on us. We need to be prepared and we need to hedge against risk.”
Some junior ministers say the same, with one maintaining the mood within the party has changed in recent weeks to Kenny’s disadvantage.
“If there is a move made, it will happen fast,” said one. “I don’t think he has the energy [to fight] this time now. The second thing is he won’t have the numbers.”
Another called the appointment of James Reilly as deputy leader one of the “strangest decisions I have seen”.
"I can see no justification for it. But clearly there has been a change in mood, and even before the [Irish Times] poll. People want it dealt with sooner." It is understood Leo Varadkar was approached by some members of the parliamentary party yesterday urging him to take action, but he was reluctant to do so yet.
In the background lurks Fianna Fáil, buoyed by yesterday's poll that put the party on 33 per cent. Micheál Martin was cheered as he entered the Dáil bar yesterday to meet grassroots members up from Roscommon to celebrate the election of Eugene Murphy.
Martin is not a man to carry himself with a swagger but the Fianna Fáil buoyancy is unmistakable. Fianna Fáil figures have privately said in they see no point in allowing a new Fine Gael leader take over from Kenny. Why not bring the Government down before a Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney or Frances Fitzgerald has time to settle in, they ask.
Martin, it is claimed, could take a novice leader of Fine Gael in an election campaign. Yet some see this as a bluff; a Fianna Fáil threat designed to spook Fine Gael into keeping Kenny in situ. Fianna Fáil see Kenny as their biggest electoral asset and some in Martin’s party maintain that the Taoiseach himself cost Fine Gael 10 seats in the election.
Despite that threat, Fine Gael is in the opening stages of a process to replace Kenny. There is still fondness for him and many hope he will see this week as a warning shot and move on in the coming months.
“That’s the hope,” said party figure. “The fear is he will have to be dragged out by his feet.”