Kenny is set to lead FG in next election
Cabinet ministers fear Taoiseach will not step down
Fine Gael Cabinet ministers believe Taoiseach Enda Kenny intends to remain party leader and fight for a third term in office if the Government falls in the New Year.
After a week of political turmoil, which threatened the 'confidence and supply' deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, ministers now believe Mr Kenny intends to stay on as leader in the event of a snap election.
There are heightened concerns in Fine Gael that the Government could be brought down in March over the divisive water charges issue.
Kenny has publicly said that he will not lead Fine Gael into the next election, scheduled to take place in 2018.
However, there is now a growing belief that he will seek to hold on to power if the Government suddenly collapses before then.
This weekend it emerged that, in a speech to local supporters in Leinster House two weeks ago, Kenny said he "will be around for a longer haul than people think".
The prospect of the Taoiseach remaining as leader to contest a third term is a blow to Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Simon Coveney.
The two ministers have been actively seeking to win support ahead of a leadership campaign that both expected to take place next summer.
However, in recent weeks, other ministers have been openly discussing the possibility of Kenny remaining as leader if an election is called before Fine Gael's 'confidence and supply' deal with Fianna Fail expires in October 2018.
A senior Cabinet minister told the Sunday Independent that a section of the Fine Gael parliamentary party would be open to Kenny as leader for a third term due to the economic threat posed by Brexit.
"If he came out and said 'because of the uncertainty around Brexit I'm going to stay', that's going to land okay," the minister said, adding: "A lot of new TDs think leadership change creates uncertainty and will result in an election."
This weekend a source very close to Kenny said the Taoiseach "could be forced to remain on" due to economic uncertainties. The source said Kenny's leadership rivals might even be willing to allow him stay as they would not want to take the party reins in the current climate.
"A couple of months ago, I would have said he was a man ready to go off into the wilderness, but he is more resolute now in his thinking, and he sees that his popularity is increasing from people he's meeting on the street," the well-placed source said.
A number of Cabinet ministers have publicly insisted Kenny's influence in Brussels will be "essential" during Brexit negotiations, which will take at least two years to conclude. Senior Fine Gael figures also believe the Taoiseach is best placed to deal with the diplomatic implications arising from the election of billionaire businessman Donald Trump as US President.
In an interview in today's Sunday Independent, Health Minister Simon Harris warns against "underestimating the importance of personal relationships" Kenny has developed with EU leaders.
"Over the last six years that he's been Taoiseach he has built some very strong connections in Europe - he knows each of the leaders of the other European countries and he has shown leadership at a European level on a number of occasions and, as you know, he's highly regarded, and has been touted for European positions," Harris said.
The Health Minister also refused to rule himself out of a leadership contest saying: "It would be foolish to shut any doors but I think it would be foolish to bolshily say, 'I'm going to do it' because I haven't decided yet."
Yesterday, the Taoiseach's constituency colleague and Junior Minister Michael Ring also said Kenny's leadership was important in the face of growing international uncertainty. "Recent opinions polls are showing his popularity going up and we need a steady hand to get us through 2017 - with Brexit and Trump we don't know what's going to happen," Mr Ring said.
Another senior Cabinet minister said Mr Kenny should never have announced he planned to step down before the next election as it immediately shifted the focus on those who had ambitions to succeed him.
The minister said it was fair to speculate that current economic conditions, and a jump in his personal popularity could result in the Taoiseach fighting a third election as leader. "He's definitely had a good few months and anything is possible in politics," the minister said.