Cowen's close friends tell him it's time to go
Taoiseach 'is downbeat' as hope of holding on to leadership fades
Taoiseach Brian Cowen's hopes of holding on to the Fianna Fail leadership were fading last night.
Even a number of his loyal friends told him it was time to go.
They told him it would be better if somebody else now led the party into the general election.
A number of party TDs said Mr Cowen was downbeat.
Mr Cowen was asking TDs if Fianna Fail would win more seats if he wasn't leader.
Fianna Fail leadership contenders Brian Lenihan, Micheal Martin and Mary Hanafin were challenged to make their move if they wanted the leadership.
Eamon O Cuiv also threw his hat into the leadership ring in the event of a vacancy.
"If the grassroots of the party came to me and if they believed I was the best person for the job, of course, I'd have to think about it and, of course, I'd be interested in it," he said.
If Mr Cowen was replaced as party leader, but stayed on as caretaker Taoiseach, a general election would be expected to come quicker.
Mr Cowen spoke with about 40 Fianna Fail TDs in the past two days and will continue with his consultations today.
There was also a sense in the party that the Taoiseach would be enormously damaged if a heave was started against him.
"The mere fact of a significant number being against him would have a damaging effect," one minister said.
In an ominous sign, a senior Fianna Fail TD previously loyal to Mr Cowen said it was time for the Taoiseach to go.
"I know him a long time but I told him it would be better if somebody else leads us into the election. My sense is he probably will stand down," the TD said.
Another TD said "the fight was gone" out of Mr Cowen as he was "very down".
Concerns over Mr Cowen's leadership came to a head this week after he was publicly grilled in the Dail on Wednesday on his contacts with disgraced Anglo Irish Bank boss Sean FitzPatrick.
Under pressure, he revealed the names of two other business chiefs who joined him and Mr FitzPatrick for a post-golf match dinner in Druid's Glen.
These were Gary McGann, chief executive of Smurfit Kappa, who was a director of Anglo at the time, and Alan Gray, an economist appointed to the Central Bank board by Mr Cowen.
Then came claims by ex-Anglo chief David Drumm that the Taoiseach pushed for a cash injection in the bank.
But yesterday, former chief of the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) Michael Somers insisted he could not recall being ordered by Mr Cowen to deposit funds with Anglo.
Fianna Fail would need at least 18 signatures to table a motion of no-confidence in Mr Cowen at the next parliamentary party meeting on Tuesday, and the support of more than half the 74 Fianna Fail MPs to topple the party leader.
But Mr Cowen's close circle was putting up a battling performance, suggesting the Taoiseach would fight on.
Mr Lenihan and Ms Hanafin were among those who spoke with Mr Cowen yesterday, but Mr Martin will not be talking to him after making his views known in a meeting last Monday.
Mr Cowen is believed to be assessing the mood within the party, rather than adding up numbers of who would be with him or against him in a heave.
"This isn't a numbers game. He is not counting heads," a senior TD close to Mr Cowen said.
"He is genuinely trying to gauge the opinion towards him in the Fianna Fail party and the public.
"I don't think the Taoiseach would want to put the party through a leadership contest. He is not a Charlie Haughey."
And one cabinet minister said he believed that Mr Cowen was more likely to stay on, given that key allies such as Batt O'Keeffe and Mary Coughlan were backing him.
But another backbencher said most people in the party would prefer if Mr Cowen would go himself rather than face a leadership challenge.
"Nobody wants to see blood on the floor. But you couldn't run an election campaign now that he has managed to link Anglo and Sean Fitzpatrick with Fianna Fail," he said.