Kenny's future will stand or fall on ability to explain painful decisions
THE Fine Gael stalwart was adamant that Enda Kenny was still the king and the Seanad referendum reverse was at best a passing sideshow. "Look at that survey last week, one-in-three people wants us to go all the way with the cutbacks – right up to the full €3.1bn. That one-third, they're our crowd you know, the Fine Gael heartland."
And the man had a reasonable point. The conversation took place in the hour before Enda Kenny was due to take the podium on Saturday in the Limerick Conference Centre and deliver his combative key-note address.
As if to reinforce our Fine Gael stalwart's views, another survey was published yesterday, this time in the 'Sunday Independent'. It again showed that precisely one-in-three people wants the coarsest hair shirt available from Michael Noonan's Budget tomorrow and no softening of austerity.
The delegates' mood on Saturday afternoon was very upbeat at the conference in Raheen, on the outskirts of Limerick city, and just up the way from Michael Noonan's own home.
There was much comparing of notes among delegates about how advanced they were on candidate selection for the upcoming local elections next May. The car park was plastered with posters reminding them that they were close to the heartland of Southern Fine Gael MEP, Sean Kelly, who clearly wants another five years in Brussels and Strasbourg.
The delegates' conversations about candidates were very realistic. Some of them conceded that they will have to defend the local tax, which was introduced at 50pc of the yearly rate this year, but will be the full whack next year.
Cllr Naoise O Muiri, until recently lord mayor of Dublin, said they would have a real job to explain the local tax case, but he was enthused by the freedom councils will in future get to vary it by plus or minus 15pc. "The campaign will be challenging – but we're up for it," he told me.
One of Enda Kenny's big trump cards right now is that, while his parliamentary party is full of various tensions, the larger Fine Gael tribe is a rather happy one. In fact my Fine Gael stalwart confidante was keen to push another theory.
"In fact, Enda was lucky to lose that referendum, you know. I mean we'd have lost all those senators – and the councillors love the senators and all the fuss and bother they make trying to get their vote in the senate elections," our Fine Gael diehard offered.
Realpolitik is not often pretty, especially among the political enthusiasts.
The Taoiseach's only reference to the Seanad was to announce that a referendum result that has lain fallow since July 1979 will be acted upon.
In the future, the six university senators will be elected by graduates of other third-level colleges beyond TCD and NUI. That move is a very minuscule start indeed. But political reform is for another day rather than Budget eve.
The only apparent note of discord at this Fine Gael gathering came from the 300 or so anti-abortion protesters on the road outside, whose noisy chants could at times be heard inside the conference centre. But as darkness thickened, and the protesters were lit up by passing cars, there was more than a suggestion of an image from one of Kenny's recent past struggles, in fact his first really big test as Taoiseach and one he came through.
This Limerick conference was very good for Enda Kenny after a bad week he had brought upon himself. But away from the political activist bubble there were reminders that there are much bigger fish to fry. The gathering was taking place between two very tough cabinet meetings trying to finalise tomorrow's Budget details and resolve gut struggles over health and welfare policy.
Cllr Naoise O Muiri's point about explaining the case on local taxes could be extended to so many other areas of public life. Enda Kenny's future will stand or fall on his ability to explain that what his Government is doing is both fair and value for money. And among other things, reports of another health over-spend and reports of hospital theatres and surgeons standing idle, that challenge will not be easily met.
The Taoiseach's own address put a specific date, December 15, on Ireland's bailout exit. It would end this country's economic emergency but not its on-going economic troubles. Things remain fragile – not least the economic mood.
Yesterday's survey certainly told us that one-in-three people wants to be hit harder in tomorrow's Budget. But in broad terms, when asked about the future, up to half of the people expect they will be worse off by this time next year; one-in-three believe things will stay the same.
Only one-in-seven people believes they will be better off by October 2014. Changing the order on those figures is the challenge ahead of Enda Kenny. By teatime tomorrow we will have a much better idea of how he is facing up to that one.