Enda Kenny: great survivor bows to reality
Stop-start career saw Taoiseach arguably become Fine Gael’s most successful leader
Having clawed their way to power, politicians tend to hang on. Enda Kenny languished on Fine Gael’s backbenches for 11 years before being appointed a Minister of State. It took him a further eight years to make the senior ranks. For half of the past 30 years, he has led Fine Gael, six of them as Taoiseach. It’s hard to let go.
As the longest serving member of the Dáil and the only Fine Gael leader to be re-elected Taoiseach, Mr Kenny can point to solid achievements. An old-fashioned, glad-handling, folksy politician, he has admitted to limited electronic communication skills. This weakness before the cameras, however, cloaked a strategic nous, strong personal relationships and an utter ruthlessness that opponents discovered too late.
Mr Kenny, arguably, is the most successful leader Fine Gael ever had. But it has been a stop-start career. Defeated by Michael Noonan for the leadership in 2001, his prospects appeared limited. But a disastrous general election in 2002 saw him secure the position. He presided over the rebuilding of Fine Gael and withstood a leadership challenge from Richard Bruton in 2010. When Fianna Fáil’s mishandling of the economy set the scene for the 2011 election, a Fine Gael/Labour coalition emerged with the largest government majority on record. He showed judgment and magnanimity in appointing critics to Cabinet.
Promises of a democratic revolution were lost in a day-to-day Cabinet struggle that involved falling living standards, additional charges, public anger and efforts to revive the economy. Recovery and growth failed to provide political rewards as the public mood soured. Twenty-six Fine Gael seats disappeared in the 2016 election campaign. The Labour Party lost 30. Mr Kenny observed wryly this week: people were looking for deliverance, not economic delivery.
Going into the election, Mr Kenny’s leadership was already under threat. But critics were silenced when he announced that, in the event of being re-elected Taoiseach, he would not lead the party into another election. It was a Rubicon moment. His putative successors – Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney – were chosen as negotiators to form a minority government and their success in recruiting Independent ministers and securing a three-budget ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with Fianna Fáil emboldened him. Thoughts of retirement faded and he spoke of staying on until 2018. Threats of no confidence motions were issued. Would-be successors emphasised the need for Fine Gael to be election ready.
It has been a most reluctant goodbye. Much of the past six months has been dominated by resignation speculation, even as the Government – held hostage by Dáil arithmetic – failed to provide decisive leadership. The Taoiseach may have taken a perverse pleasure in exposing his would-be successors as being ultra-cautious and indecisive. But the final outcome was never in doubt. Procrastinate too long and the reputation of Fine Gael itself would be damaged.
After 15 years as party leader, Mr Kenny’s personal wishes made way for harsh reality. The political tide had gone out. The clock had run down. No matter how much he enjoyed the job or the mind-games he played with opponents, the choice was stark: jump or be pushed.
A leadership contest is underway and Mr Kenny will remain in office until the guard changes in June. In the meantime, relief has been brought to members of the parliamentary party who can concentrate now on protecting or advancing their careers under a new leader. It is the essence of parliamentary democracy though it pitches the State – and an already ineffective minority government – into further uncertainty.