Bruton's bloodless coup becomes drawn-out battle
ANALYSIS:Kenny’s pre-emptive strike means FG power struggle will drag on to the party’s detriment, writes HARRY McGEE
THE PLOT for a clinical palace coup had been in preparation for many months. Back in February, those behind it came close to mounting a heave against Enda Kenny’s leadership following George Lee’s impetuous departure from politics.
But a combination of Richard Bruton’s innately cautious disposition as well as the sense it would be inappropriate to mount a challenge on the back of the Lee debacle put paid to it.
The idea behind it was simple. One by one the front bench of the party would express no confidence in Kenny. Shorn of the support of the most senior figures in the party, he would realise that the most dignified response would be resignation.
The small number of ambitious younger politicians who made no secret that they wanted an ouster of Kenny – Brian Hayes, Simon Coveney and Lucinda Creighton – indicated that the armistice was only temporary.
They warned privately back then that if Kenny did not raise his game and Fine Gael continued to flatline in opinion polls, then a fresh challenge would come sooner rather than later.
In the event the period of grace lasted for little more than four months. Following the poor showing for the party and for Kenny in last week’s Irish Timesopinion poll, the group quickly mobilised into action. Once Bruton refused to express continued confidence in Kenny’s leadership, the die was cast.
The strategy of both sides was intriguing. What Bruton’s side wanted to put into action was, in effect, a palace coup. His supporters were confident that they could command the support of a majority of the Fine Gael front bench, numbering 19 in total. On Friday and Saturday, all those who pledged allegiance to Bruton were told that a code of omerta would apply until tomorrow. And then, at the front bench meeting, each would in turn tell Kenny directly that they no longer had confidence in his leadership.
One of Bruton’s closest supporters described the strategy underlying it: “When the issue of his leadership is raised and a majority of the front bench tell him to his face that they no longer support him, he would then reflect on his position.
“How can he possibly think he can continue when he knows that he at least eight of his cabinet will not serve with him? How can he do that? That is the realpolitik.”
Bruton did not want to fan the flames of speculation over the weekend and wanted all his supporters to keep schtum until Tuesday, to allow what they hoped would be a bloodless revolution that would minimise damage to the party.
But Kenny and his supporters – Phil Hogan, James Reilly and Paul Kehoe – did not quite read the narrative that way. The Fine Gael leader pre-empted Bruton on Saturday by making a phone call to his deputy leader. When it became clear that Bruton was no longer loyal, the party leadership kickstarted a high-octane and very visible counter-strategy, designed to force Bruton and his supporters into declaring his hand.
Over the course of the weekend, the front bench spokespeople who were loyal to Kenny issued public statements endorsing his leadership. Along with Hogan, Kehoe, and Reilly, Alan Shatter, Charlie Flanagan, Jimmy Deenihan, Michael Ring and Senator Frances Fitzgerald, all pledged support. The party’s director of communications Ciaran Conlon was part of a Fine Gael team taking part in the Four Peaks Challenge. He abandoned his efforts after Corran Tuathail and Mweelrea “because there were bigger mountains to climb” back at party headquarters in Mount Street. Over the course of the weekend and throughout yesterday a succession of press releases were issued in the names of TDs, Senators and MEPs (nine in all) backing Kenny. Bruton supporters claimed that Kenny and Hogan were getting “desperate” and clutching at straws. But for the leadership, it was successful in forcing the issue.
On the other side of the divide, there was a complete silence. With the exception of Fergus O’Dowd, who pledged his support for Bruton from the US, no other members of the front bench were available for comment yesterday. But the vacuum created by their silence was being taken as denoting support for Bruton. Thus by their silence, Michael Creed, Olivia Mitchell, Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar, Billy Timmins, Denis Naughten and Olwyn Enright were deemed to be Bruton supporters.
At least one or two of those (Varadkar and Enright) are seen as imponderables but even in their absence, Bruton could command the backing of at least seven front-bench colleagues.
His supporters said last night that Kenny’s dramatic decision to sack Bruton was taken because he knew that he could not carry the support of the shadow cabinet at this morning’s meeting. It was the only way that he could regain the initiative.
Kenny’s supporters saw it differently and were not willing to give up the prize so easily. It was clear from early yesterday that their strategy was to widen the battle field. They have argued that the leadership of the party was a matter for the wider parliamentary party and not just the elite of the front bench. In his emotional – and extempore – statement announcing Bruton’s sacking, Kenny argued that he was not willing to see the eight years of sacrifice he had put into rebuilding the party come to naught. In a personal reference, he also said that he “was that soldier” and that he had defended Richard Bruton’s brother John on three occasions when his leadership came under threat.
“I want to end this bickering. I cannot tell you the damage that has been done.” Bruton appeared on RTÉ a little later to say that his actions were motivated not just by the opinion poll but by his long-running doubts as to Enda Kenny’s capacity to run the party. His colleagues pointed to Bruton’s fury at a statement issued in his name (but without his approval) attacking EU supervision of national budgets; and also with his unease following a very poor performance by Kenny in the Dáil a fortnight ago. But undoubtedly, the poor poll showing provided the catalyst for the weekend’s events.
At 4.45pm Kenny contacted party chairman Padraic McCormack to table a motion of confidence in his leadership. McCormack confirmed the one-item parliamentary party meeting will probably take place on Thursday, involving the 69 Fine Gael TDs, Senators and MEPs. The vote will be by secret ballot. Those involved in both camps claimed yesterday that some of those who declared publicly for Kenny or Bruton will actually vote the other way. If Kenny is defeated, the new leader will be elected under a new weighted system of the parliamentary party (65 per cent); party members (25 per cent) and public representatives (10 per cent).
The implications for the party are damaging. Nobody, least of all the two protagonists, is denying that it will be political blood-letting. It will also make a mockery of the unfortunate Fine Gael Dáil motion of no confidence in Brian Cowen’s government.
Even with a more abysmal poll showing, Fianna Fáil has demonstrated that it still has an incredible loyalty gene; one that has been blatantly lacking in Fine Gael for a generation now.
The implications are serious. Whoever wins will lead a divided party. If Kenny survives but with a slim margin, it could still portend the end of his leadership, as he will be portrayed as weak and not in command. In that context, Bruton may have played the role of Michael Heseltine, who stood against Thatcher and lost, thus easing the path of another rival John Major.
All of that is down the road. While Thursday will determine the battle, it will not spell the end for Fine Gael’s damaging internal war.