Kenny should think again and reach out to Lucinda
LAST week's opinion poll showing Fine Gael holding steady in the polls was hailed by the political commentariat as proof positive that the fallout from the abortion legislation had been contained.
A victory for Enda Kenny's firm and decisive handling of the issue, was the near unanimous verdict.
Leave aside the recent booing of the Taoiseach in Croke Park and it is possible to build the argument that he is at the height of his powers right now.
With an iron fist, he has faced down the rebels in his party on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill. He is not only on course to become the first Fine Gael Taoiseach to be re-elected, but he is the only one of the party leaders who will definitely still be in place by the next general election. His standing with the media is as good as any modern day Taoiseach has enjoyed, and is in sharp contrast to his immediate predecessor.
Kenny would be forgiven for feeling quite pleased with his lot. But arguably, that is what he needs to be most careful about.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the distribution of 'The Prince', Machiavelli's definitive rulebook for leaders. The world has changed a lot since then, but many of the lessons contained in it still hold true. Especially chapter 23, which is entitled "How flatterers should be avoided".
The Taoiseach has no shortage of flatterers, not least in his own party. If there is a failing about Kenny and his Government – backbenchers included – it is an egotistic tendency to believe their own publicity. At times, particularly when dealing with the opposition in the Dail, there is an unappealing arrogance about the Coalition.
Kenny, as the Dail's longest-serving TD, will know more than most that, in politics, such arrogance often comes before a fall.
It would be churlish not to acknowledge that he has done well in the role of Taoiseach, particularly in selling Ireland abroad and in lifting national morale. He has visibly grown in stature since becoming Taoiseach. Before February 2011, many doubted his ability to do the job, but such is the sense of confidence he has brought to the position that few now do so.
However, in his dealings with those who opposed the party whip on abortion, the Taoiseach risks straying beyond self-confidence and authority into hubris and autocratic leadership.
Kenny was right to take that tough line on the party whip last month. In doing so, he successfully limited the damage to 'just' five TDs and two senators. If he had shown weakness at that point, it could have been far, far worse, and his leadership might have been fatally undermined.
His strength won the day. However, if he follows through on the line that those rebels will not be Fine Gael candidates at the next general election, it could yet come back to bite him.
One of those rebels, former junior minister Lucinda Creighton, was quick to deny weekend reports that she and other outcast Fine Gael TDs were preparing to form a new party.
But the Fine Gael leadership still needs to be careful not to back those TDs into a corner. In a radio interview on Sunday, one of them, Billy Timmins, was careful in his choice of words. But his comment that he was not going "to sit on his hands" and wait around in the hope that one day there might be forgiveness from Fine Gael was particularly pointed.
The TDs are expected to set up a group in the Dail to try to get speaking time. But most observers are playing down the threat of a new political party emerging from that.
They are probably right. But why would Fine Gael take the risk? The smart move now for Kenny would be to send a private signal to Creighton and the others that after a year or 18 months in purgatory, there is a way back into the party if they keep their political noses clean. There is a long tradition of TDs losing the whip over a particular issue – usually some local difficulty – but being readmitted a year or so later with the slate wiped clean. It is not seen as weakness on the part of the leader, simply political pragmatism.
Why is it different on this occasion? After all, it is clear that those who defied the whip did so on grounds of conscience, not for any political gain.
And Fine Gael is not in such a healthy position in the polls that it can afford to throw away seats at the next general election. At least three of the five expelled TDs look good to hold their seats next time. The damage could be even greater if somehow a new socially and fiscally conservative party was to emerge. Why invite that kind of trouble? Surely the Taoiseach is not taking it personally?
Forgiveness, Gandhi said, is the attribute of the strong. The Taoiseach has demonstrated his strength. But more subtlety will be required to stay that way.
Shane Coleman is political editor of Newstalk 106-108FM.