Next 24 hours crucial for Kenny's leadership

 

ANALYSIS:Everything depends on whether Richard Bruton is prepared to make a challenge for the leadership, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

THE NEXT 24 hours will decide whether Enda Kenny survives as leader of Fine Gael. Everything hinges on whether his deputy leader Richard Burton is prepared to throw down the gauntlet at tomorrow’s meeting of the party front bench.

Supporters and opponents of Kenny gave diametrically opposed views yesterday about what is likely to happen at the front bench and at any subsequent parliamentary party vote of confidence in the party leader.

“Enda has the numbers in the parliamentary party and Richard will be buried if he takes him on. It’s as simple as that,” said one leading Kenny supporter.

The opposite view was given by a prominent opponent who said: “The majority of the front bench are now in favour of a change and that will be evident at the meeting on Tuesday morning. It will be all over for Enda at that stage and there will be no need for a motion of no confidence at the parliamentary party.” What is clear is that Bruton has been taking soundings over the weekend to try to establish the level of support he has in the party, particularly at frontbench level.

According to some of those who received phone calls from him, Bruton did not make a personal pitch for the leadership but spoke about the need for a changed approach if the party is to recover its position as the leading political force in the Republic.

What is not clear is whether the deputy leader has been able to muster a majority of front benchers to his side. If he can get around half of the 17 front benchers to back him it is difficult to see how Kenny can survive, even if he insists on going to the parliamentary party to test the issue.

The question of whether Bruton has assembled enough support at the front bench to force Kenny out is impossible to gauge the because many of them are keeping their own counsel and that is open to interpretation either way.

Bruton has a serious dilemma because if he does challenge tomorrow and fails, he will have to resign from the front bench and in all likelihood will forfeit the opportunity to be the next minister for finance.

One thing that is clear is that while close to half of the front bench have come out in favour of Kenny, nobody has come out publicly against him.

The declared supporters are Phil Hogan, James Reilly, Charlie Flanagan, Alan Shatter and Michael Ring who all nailed their colours to the mast in support of the leader as did the party leader in the Seanad, Frances Fitzgerald.

Simon Coveney avoided coming down on either side but warned his colleagues against over-reacting to a single opinion poll, urging them to adopt a united front given tomorrow’s vote of confidence in Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

Up to last night nobody had come out openly for Bruton and against Kenny but supporters of the deputy leader pointed to the number remaining silent as evidence of a mood for change.

“The bottom line here is that Richard would like a coronation but he is not going to get that. If he really wants to be leader he will have to fight and I am not sure he has the stomach for a bloodbath,” said a Kenny supporter.

One shrewd member of the parliamentary party made the point that many of his colleagues would make up their minds on the basis of a calculation about which way the wind is blowing.

“Everybody in politics has a personal agenda as well as a commitment to doing something for the country. People are looking at whether taking a stand against the leader will help them get into the cabinet or ruin their chances, so many won’t decide what to do until they can judge the strength of the move to change the leader,” he said.

The challenge facing those who want change is to convince the waverers they have the numbers to win.

One important factor in Kenny’s favour is that there is a huge reluctance on the part of Fine Gael TDs to react in response to one poll and even more resistance to letting the media be seen to dictate who should be party leader.

A party spokesman sought to capitalise on that mood yesterday by saying that after taking 70 years to get ahead of Fianna Fáil and having that position conformed in the last 25 polls, “we are not going to be distracted by a panicked over-reaction by some to one poll, the authors of which have already stated that the polling methodology will be amended”.

He added that Kenny’s focus was on the motion of no confidence in Cowen tomorrow and delivering for all party supporters around the country.

One thing Kenny’s opponents will have to judge is whether he will fight it out to the bitter end and force them to come and get him. Party history is no guide as to what will happen next.

When Alan Dukes was challenged after the presidential election disaster of 1990 he fought for a few days but resigned to avoid a bloodbath at the parliamentary party. With that decision went his chance of ever becoming taoiseach.

John Bruton, the man who replaced him, behaved in a very different way.

When faced with three challenges to his leadership he fought them each time. He won through twice but lost his third battle. TDs will be acutely aware that the party went from the frying pan to the fire after he was finally removed.

They may also recall that when he survived a determined heave in the autumn of 1994, he was taoiseach within months, and while he graciously appointed two of his leading opponents, Michael Noonan and Dukes, to cabinet, others lost their chance for good.

Liam Cosgrave also survived an attempted heave in December, 1972, and he too ended up in the taoiseach’s office a few months later.

Given the example of Cosgrave and John Bruton, Kenny has every incentive to fight to the finish and test the strength and courage of his opponents to the limit.

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