Kenny may be lagging behind but he can still play for time

Nature of Fine Gael leader’s departure hinges on parliamentary party meeting

There is a particular phenomenon that occurs at hurling games in south Galway where gales often blow in from the Atlantic.

As teams traipse off at half-time, the scoreboard often reads something bizarre like 2-12 to 0-1. The wind, of course, has been the biggest protagonist. The team with the cricket-score lead actually frets in the dressing-room at half-time. They wonder can they can protect it in the second half, knowing the gale-assisted onslaught that’s about to rain on them.

A not-too-close observer of the Fine Gael leadership issue might think that that game is all over bar the shouting. The reality is that all they have been hearing for the past week is one side of the narrative, that being spun by supporters of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

So, the story has unfolded in one of two ways, depending on which camp it has been coming from:

READ MORE

1: Enda has to go and he has to go right now.

2: Enda has to go and he has to go not right now but very soon.

What has been missing has been this: una voce, uno duce.

Wind-assisted speech

Kenny himself has not said a word. Tonight, he will get his opportunity to address the parliamentary party. If he’s capable of using the skills accumulated during a political lifetime, his wind-assisted speech to the TDs and Senators has the potential to change the outcome.

It would be churlish to say he will put down the challenge, because it is too late to do that. This is not June 2010. It is not even July of last year when he easily dispensed with the mutinous Fine Gael voices unhappy over his poor handling of the issue of collective Cabinet responsibility.

The net point is that the timing of Kenny’s political fate is not a foregone conclusion and can still be hugely influenced by how the parliamentary party pans out tonight. Crucial to that will be how he approaches the meeting, and how he addresses it.

There are “factors on the ground” that are irreversible.

It is an unstable Government, one vote of confidence away from an election. Kenny himself has said he will not lead the party into the next election. Therefore, the party needs to change leadership in timely fashion before that election is called. While the immediate threat of an election (if ever there was one) has receded, there is a clear majority in the party who now agree that the “near miss” of last week cannot be repeated.

So it’s clearly a question of when. And the “when” can still be largely dictated by Kenny, despite the strength and the tenacity of the arguments that have been made in the past week. While having potency, they have come from one of three camps: Varadkar’s, Coveney’s and that of a small band of virulent anti-Kennyites who have been pushing for him to go. It is the latter group which has threatened motions of no confidence. Their difficulty was it was never likely they would get five members of the 73-strong parliamentary party to come out publicly and put their name to it. As it happened, the 1pm deadline for the motion passed on Tuesday without the motion being tabled.

In truth, nobody knows what Kenny is going to say when the party meets at 5.30pm on Wednesday. He will be first to speak and what he says will determine his own future. RTÉ has conducted two trawls of the parliamentary party in the past two days. What has been most interesting is the number of non-commitals so far.

Positions reserved

Only a third of the parliamentary party are committed to either Varadkar or Coveney (with Varadkar ahead). A big majority are clearly reserving their positions or are waiting for Kenny to speak. That clearly shows that large numbers can still be swayed.

One senior figure in the party, who has no dog in the fight, put it best last night: “If Kenny tries to make it a stay or not-stay argument he will lose. But if he goes and says ‘I want to be given time’ he can win, if it means he stays closer to three weeks than to three months.”

There have been some straws in the wind.

Some who have met him say Kenny has been resolute, in good form, and focused – expected to fight his corner, in other words. He will not make any reference to a date, or mention a timeline, even though it is expected he will say the issue will be addressed after his return from Washington.

The same figure said he believes Kenny isn't overly concerned about breaking John A Costello's record and becoming Fine Gael's longest-serving leader: "What concerns him is Brexit. This has become a huge issue for it and he genuinely believes nobody is better placed than him to make the argument for Ireland once article 50 is triggered."

Just like those hurling games in Kinvara or Clarinbridge.

What you see at half-time doesn’t make it a foregone conclusion.