Stephen Collins: Enda Kenny’s time draws to an end as TDs begin to lose faith
Fear of an election convinces many backbenchers that a new leader is needed
The political chaos of the past week has acted like shock therapy on Fine Gael TDs. While many of them still believe Enda Kenny is the best person to lead the country they no longer believe he is the best person to lead the party.
The near-collapse of the minority Government has brought that contradiction between those two roles to the surface and it is difficult to see how the Taoiseach can survive in office beyond the summer.
While the Government managed to withstand a serious wobble by the Independent Alliance and faced the confidence vote with a semblance of unity, the leadership issue is now dominating the thoughts of Fine Gael TDs.
On the one hand there is a recognition that his long experience and proven political skills equip Kenny, much more than any of his potential rivals, to steer the country through the major international challenges that face the country over the next 12 months but there is palpable fear in the parliamentary party that a snap election could be forced upon them while he is still leader.
There has long been a dichotomy between the negative way Kenny is perceived at home, even by some of his own TDs, and the positive image he has abroad where he is widely regarded as one of the most successful prime ministers in Europe.
The remarkable turnaround in the Irish economy under his stewardship and his ability to survive at the top for six years has given him a status among his EU counterparts that any successor will take a long time to achieve.
Given the importance of the upcoming Brexit negotiations, never mind the challenges posed by the election of Donald Trump and potential instability across the European Union, there is a strong argument for saying that Kenny is the best-equipped politician to lead the country for the next year at least.
That, however, is not the priority for many Fine Gael TDs. Most of them would be quite happy for him to stay on for a year or even more if they were convinced that an election will not take place for at least another 18 months. However, the events of the past week have shattered the belief in the Government’s longer-term survival prospects.
Up to now the view that a change of leader could lead to political instability and an early election has shored up support for the Taoiseach in the Fine Gael ranks but recent events have turned that assessment on its head.
A significant number of TDs who had been supportive of Kenny’s continuation in office now want to see him stepping down sooner rather than later so that a new leader can be bedded in before the general election.
The political experiment that has allowed Kenny to stay in office at the behest of Fianna Fáil grated on a number of Fine Gael TDs from the start. The events of the past week which saw the Government having to bow publicly to the dictates of Micheál Martin was the last straw for some.
Kenny has confounded his critics in the past but he is likely to face an open revolt if he does not step down by the summer. In just a few weeks he will have served six consecutive years as Taoiseach and, by May, will have surpassed John A Costello’s record as the longest-serving Fine Gael politician to hold the office.
The growing expectation among his TDs is that, having passed these milestones, he will relinquish the leadership by the Dáil summer break. If he doesn’t, he will almost certainly face a challenge.
While a small number of inveterate opponents would like to move against him immediately, there appears to be general agreement among his TDs that he should remain in office at least until the St Patrick’s Day event in the White House if for no other reason that none of the likely successors wants to tarnish their term of office from the beginning by having to meet President Donald Trump.
In any case, the two frontrunners in the succession race, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, don’t appear anxious to force the issue in the short term and would far prefer to see Kenny stepping down voluntarily so that an orderly succession can take place.
When the leadership does become vacant, it may not be a simple choice between Varadkar and Coveney. Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald is also regarded as having leadership ambitions, while Richard Bruton, whom Kenny defeated for the job twice before, cannot be ruled out.
The question that will face Fine Gael, TDs, Senators, councillors and ordinary members who make up the party electoral college is whether they want the successor who is best qualified to lead the country or the one whose face on the poster they think will deliver the best outcome for the party at the next election.