Fionnan Sheahan: No 'clear and present danger' to either Brian
THE prospects of Brian Lenihan running for the Fianna Fail leadership increased considerably yesterday.
But there is no 'clear and present danger' to Taoiseach Brian Cowen from his finance minister.
Admirably, for a man still battling a life-threatening cancer, Lenihan was taking a long-term view.
Thinking ahead, he was looking to delivering Budget 2011 on December 7 and continuing to work on the banking crisis, with a view to finally resolving the questions over what is to happen with Anglo Irish Bank.
However, his cancer treatment remains central to any debate about his political future.
The minister told how his round of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, completed in June, has stabilised the pancreatic cancer.
"Of course, when you have a cancer you are always at risk, but it has stabilised the cancer for the present," he said.
"My energy levels, I have to say, are much better, so I'm in a good position to get on with the important decisions that have to be taken in this country in the next few months.
"It has improved somewhat but, of course, like all cancers, it's still there, it has not gone away. It is there but it is not an immediate or clear or present danger," he told Sean O'Rourke on RTE's 'News At One'.
Nonetheless, Lenihan's assessment of his medical condition will also serve to stabilise his own position as Finance Minister and end the speculation that has ebbed and flowed over the course of the year about him needing to be replaced in the short term.
Continue as Finance Minister: Yes.
Move on the Taoiseach's office: No.
At least, not for now, as Lenihan quite clearly left the door open for a shot as leader of Fianna Fail sometime into the future. Any senior politician who says they are not interested in becoming the leader of their party is lying.
In Lenihan's case, as a serving finance minister, he has a distinct advantage over his contemporaries.
Garret FitzGerald is the only exception to the rule during this period.
Though the measures he has implemented remain deeply contentious and unpopular, Lenihan's standing has risen during his turbulent period as Finance Minister.
Following a gaffe-ridden opening six months in the job, he settled into the role during the banking and fiscal crisis. His communication skills have served the Government well.
Fianna Fail backbenchers disillusioned with Cowen's leadership style have turned their focus towards Lenihan, ahead of Dermot Ahern and Micheal Martin in the pecking order for a preferred new leader.
Lenihan distanced himself from any prospective heave against Cowen as he said he was not "party to any such manoeuvre".
"Nobody has sounded me out for the leadership of the party in that sense," he added.
Giving support to Cowen, he said he didn't think a previous Taoiseach has had to sustain such "serial personal abuse".
However, he indicated that he was evidently aware of the murmurings of discontent within Fianna Fail as he referred to people being concerned about the "direction" of the party.
When it came to the matter of his own leadership ambitions, Lenihan left the door wide open for a tilt at some point in the future. "There is no vacancy at present," he said.
Health permitting, his chance will ultimately come, probably after the next General Election.
Attempting to become leader at this point in time would be fraught with difficulty.
A leadership heave would be divisive as Cowen has loyal supporters who would insist he fight on. And, even if Cowen stood down voluntarily, Lenihan would not be guaranteed an automatic ascent to the leadership.
The question of his health would be raised with Lenihan obviously unable to provide reassurance that his condition wouldn't deteriorate. The lingering doubt would be enough to weaken his candidacy.
Anyway, why would he want to take over the leadership now?
The timing couldn't be any worse with a struggling party facing into an awkward period of survival in power and a difficult election ahead.
Fianna Fail, a party so used to being in power, will have limited levels of appreciation for a leader who would limit the damage, but not see off their exit into opposition.
His levels of respect in political circles are a contradiction: he is responsible for implementing the fiscal and banking decisions and yet he remains relatively popular.
If he became Taoiseach, this view would possibly change as he took on added responsibilities for the Government as a whole.
Steadfastly refusing to see the negative side, Mr Lenihan is clearly adopting a long-term strategy.
The threat to Cowen isn't coming from there.