Taoiseach in better position, but view is he will go within two years

Enda Kenny does not have enough control of events to say he will serve his full term

Enda Kenny: change of leader by Fine Gael would introduce element of instability into political equation. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

Some of his Ministers may have raised an eyebrow on Monday when Enda Kenny stated his intention to serve out his full term as Taoiseach, but he was being consistent.

It is exactly what he said in August when the issue first arose, and now that he is safely back in the Taoiseach’s office, it is no surprise that he has repeated it.

The full context of his remarks can only be appreciated, though, when taken in tandem with the important qualifier that he will not lead Fine Gael into the next election.

The full implications of his comments need to be explored carefully to understand what exactly he means.

READ MORE

For a start, there is an inherent contradiction in the notion that Kenny can lead the Government for a full term and only step down as party leader when a general election is called.

Everybody in his party, including his most loyal supporters, expect that he will give his successor as Fine Gael leader enough time to establish herself or himself in office before the next election. That means that he will not serve another full term as Taoiseach.

A complicating factor is that, as he leads a minority Government, the calling of the next election is outside his control. It could come at any time, so there might not be time for a smooth transition.

If that happens, the most likely scenario is that Fine Gael would follow the template adopted by Fianna Fáil in 2011 when Micheál Martin replaced Brian Cowen as party leader for the election but Cowen remained on as taoiseach.

Minority Government

Assuming that the minority government does last for three years or so, the prevailing view in Fine Gael is that Kenny will step down in about 18 months to two years to give his successor time to bed in.

In the immediate aftermath of the February election, some of his cabinet colleagues expected Kenny might not be around as leader for very much longer whether or not he managed to hold on to the taoiseach’s office.

If Fine Gael had gone into Opposition, there would have been an automatic leadership contest and it is highly unlikely he would even have contested it.

There was a widespread assumption that he would go within a matter of months even if he did manage to hold on to office, but now he has managed the task of retaining office despite being 30 seats short of a majority the mood is different.

Having presided over the deal with Fianna Fáil and brought the Independents into the Government, Kenny is in a much stronger position to dictate his own departure terms.

As serious doubts continue about the ability of the Government to survive for months, let alone years, all involved in it have a vested interest in Kenny remaining at the helm.

Incentive

If the minority Government does manage to master the tricky business of governing by consensus in the Dáil, and establishes its authority with the public, there will be every incentive for Kenny to remain in office for as long as possible.

A change of leader by Fine Gael would introduce an element of instability into the political equation, which would not suit any of the parties or individuals involved in the Government.

While that will give Kenny the whip hand for the next year or two, he will need to be very careful not to give the impression that he intends to stick around indefinitely. That would certainly provoke a leadership challenge.

One way or another, the Taoiseach is now in a much better position to determine the timing and the manner of his going than anybody would have anticipated in the immediate aftermath of the general election.