A leader's end should be in sight but out of reach
Published 10/08/2015 | 02:30
Espousing the longevity of a party leader's tenure is a tricky business, as chief whip Paul Kehoe has learned to his cost. The well-meaning deputy's comment that Enda Kenny is as durable as a Duracell bunny serves no political purpose. It does, however, give an insight into the way those close to the Taoiseach are thinking. Deputy Kehoe will not be thanked by the party hierarchy for his musings. Fine Gael's single biggest challenge in these final months is to maintain control of the date of the general election; any development which upsets its equilibrium is unwelcome in the extreme.
The timing of the election remains at the discretion of the Taoiseach for now. But as the deadline draws closer, his options are enclosed in ever-decreasing circles. Politics aside, practicalities like St Patricks Day, Easter and 1916 centenary commemorations all must be factored into the equation. One thing he must avoid at all costs is the John Bruton "bounce" of 1997, when sheer pressure from the opposition forced an unstoppable momentum and the Government went to the country in May when they could have waited until much later in the year and taken advantage of a more favourable economic landscape. Alas, Bruton jumped ship too soon and the rest is history.
There is a secret to success for an incumbent leader to avoid mutinies mid-voyage. It is to articulate medium-term plans without defining any long-term strategy. Like the horizon, a political leader's end should be always in sight, but forever out of reach. It is this mirage that keeps the crew in line, and under orders. Essentially, there is always hope ahead and the target remains within reach, but is always moving. A well-worn tactic that provides much-needed hope for colleagues with longer-term ambitions. Few get it right and there have been some spectacular faux pas by even the most astute political operators over the years.
In 1990, Charles Haughey returned from a trip to China and spurned any notion of retirement, by remarking whimsically: "Some Chinese leaders go on into their eighties." The remark caused consternation within his already-fragmented party and Haughey piled unnecessary pressure on himself for the sake of an irresistible sound bite. Some make the mistake of saying they will stay too long; others are doomed by the declaration to depart.
Before the 2005 British election, Tony Blair publicly stated that he would not run a fourth time, assuming that he would win a third successive term that would have made him prime minister until 2010. By showing his hand, he opened the door to a Pandora's Box. What resulted was a very public, ugly battle with his successor, Gordon Brown. Having publicly anointed Brown as his successor, Blair was then effectively handbagged by his own sandbag, as Brown chomped at the bit to get inside the black door of Number 10. He was gone by autumn 2006. They never learn.
David Cameron's announcement before the last British election that he would not seek a third term as prime minister will undoubtedly create internal party problems in the midst of his second term, if not before.
All Cameron and his kitchen cabinet can do now is await the inevitable tipping point, where speculation commences about would-be successors and conjecture will undermine stability.
In the US, there are term limits which dictate that any president can only serve a maximum of two terms, a policy that Renua favour implementing in Ireland, if elected to Government. Some observers say that this makes for a more effective leadership, as in the latter part of their tenure politicians feel unshackled by the need for re-election and are therefore more likely to implement policies that are required rather than desired by popular opinion.
Waxing lyrical about the endurance of your glorious leader may come easy to overly eager politicians, who are under-occupied during the rainy summer months, but it is not without consequence. Any speculation about leadership prospects from the incumbent or those around him only provokes unwanted debate about style and substance, opinion polls and successors. It can even force sleepy successors into the fray, leading to the much-loved line "there is no vacancy at present, but were I called to serve...". You know the rest.
Knowing when to leave is the decision politicians struggle with most. Seldom lacking self-belief, it can be hard to tear oneself from the importance of being important. Enoch Powell's famous quote that "All political careers end in failure" is apt. Not because politicians invariably fail, but because they become addicted to the fray and ending up leaving it too late. Most politicians simply want another roll of the dice, another election and another spin on the merry go round. Many have experienced no other profession. They become institutionalised by the barely contained chaos of the lifestyle.
The life of a public representative is a very, very hard one. It does, however, hold a strange attraction for a certain type of person. Once elected leader, a politician gets used to being a very big fish in a very small bowl. It is hard to leave the security of the only goldfish bowl they know.
The smallest suspicion that a party leader intends to stay around forever and a day smacks of hubris that voters simply can't abide. It signifies an assumption of support which the electorate are quick to punish and unlikely to forget. For the members of the fourth estate, once the sell-by date of any leader is publicly declared, it usually means that real target practice can commence in earnest. Instead of appeasing the electorate or the media, leaders who declare their hand too soon might as well get some name badges printed with 'lame duck' as the battle to be their replacement commences.
Potential political successors do not wait around for lifeboats, they make for jittery passengers who can jump ship or throw the captain overboard readily, in the eye of a storm. Nothing will come of the debate started last week, but Fine Gael could do without such distractions, as opinion poll figures continue to move further away from returning this Coalition to government. Instead of reaching for the stars, Enda and his crew need to row hard towards the shore.