Saturday 1 October 2016

Lack of action by 'big three' key to failure of the 'heave that wasn't'

Resilient Kenny survived as Fine Gael leader as no contenders to replace him would wield the knife, writes Cormac McQuinn

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

TDs couldn’t understand why Dr Reilly — who lost his Dail seat in the election before being installed by Mr Kenny in the Seanad — was back in the job just weeks after the Taoiseach said he was no longer deputy leader.
TDs couldn’t understand why Dr Reilly — who lost his Dail seat in the election before being installed by Mr Kenny in the Seanad — was back in the job just weeks after the Taoiseach said he was no longer deputy leader.

The Taoiseach had just endured one of the most difficult weeks of his time leading Fine Gael and there was an increasing clamour suggesting his days in charge were numbered.

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As Enda Kenny last weekend maintained silence on the issue, backbench TDs were reportedly discussing the 'nuclear option', a motion of no confidence in his leadership to be tabled at the party's next meeting in Leinster House.

How widespread these talks were, or how seriously such a motion was being considered, depends on who you talk to - and some of those believed to be involved deny it - even speaking privately.

However, one thing that did happen last weekend was a behind-the-scenes intervention by Minister Leo Varadkar - perhaps the leading contender to succeed Mr Kenny when he eventually does go.

He had phone calls with a number of discontented backbenchers and made his view very clear - that a move on the leadership now would damage the party.

In one sense Mr Varadkar's actions are not that surprising. He along with Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Minister Simon Coveney - the other main future leadership hopefuls - publicly expressed his support for Mr Kenny and emphasised there is "no vacancy" for the role.

Mr Varadkar was not said to have influenced last weekend's cloak and dagger manoeuvrings among backbenchers against the Taoiseach one way or the other. Any suggestion to the contrary was dismissed by one source as "paranoid nonsense".

However, the intervention of such a senior party figure told backbenchers one thing - that any attempted heave would not have the backing of the man tipped as likely to lead the party when Mr Kenny is gone.

It's been an extraordinary two weeks as Fine Gael endured internal turmoil against the backdrop of the far-from stable minority Government bedding-in and the efforts to deal with the Brexit shock.

Sources said that the questions over Mr Kenny's leadership arose, not because a shadowy senior figure was pulling the strings, but rather due to a confluence of events.

As one senior Fine Gael figure put it, the "pretenders to the crown" needed a leadership contest at this time "like a hole in the head" after an exhausting year that saw the party fight a tough election and then endure marathon government formation talks.

And the apparent lack of action by any of the three likely candidates to take over the leadership was key to how 'the heave that wasn't' played out, even after such a torrid two weeks for Mr Kenny.

His difficulties first arose on Monday when the North's First Minister Arlene Foster slapped down a plan for an all-island forum to tackle Brexit, saying she hadn't been consulted.

Then there was consternation within Fine Gael over the capitulation to the demands of Independent Alliance ministers to allow a free vote on a Bill on fatal foetal abnormalities.

The Bill was later defeated but not before Cork South West TD Jim Daly and Carlow-Kilkenny's Pat Deering questioned Mr Kenny's handling of the matter at that weeks' parliamentary party meeting.

Louth backbencher Fergus O'Dowd told the same meeting that Fine Gael needed to discuss new leadership and should reflect on the matter over the summer.

Mr Kenny's announcement that evening that Dr James Reilly would be reappointed as deputy leader also caused surprise among his Cabinet colleagues and angered backbenchers. TDs couldn't understand why Dr Reilly - who lost his Dail seat in the election before being installed by Mr Kenny in the Seanad - was back in the job just weeks after the Taoiseach said he was no longer deputy leader.

Last weekend saw fevered speculation that backbenchers would formally move against Mr Kenny at Wednesday's parliamentary party meeting. At the same time, a string of senior ministers, including Mr Varadkar, Ms Fitzgerald and Mr Coveney, lined up to insist he had their support to continue in the role.

The only TD to openly say Mr Kenny should step down as leader this summer was Kerry's Brendan Griffin, who told RTE Radio on Monday that his party is in a "precarious position" and he didn't trust Fianna Fail not to pull the plug on the Government.

He said his view is that the upcoming summer recess is the "only opportunity that we would have for an orderly transition to new leadership".

It was the same day that Mr Kenny finally broke his silence on the issue at an event in Mayo, saying he has "no intention" of being diverted from his work as Taoiseach.

Mr Kenny returned from a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday to face his party again the following day.

Despite the weekend rumblings, no motions relating to his leadership were tabled.

Dr Reilly addressed TDs, as did Mr Kenny who defended his decision to reappoint him. The Taoiseach spoke of wanting to "draw a line" under the leadership issue and the need for the party to "pull together", and offered to meet with dissenting TDs.

He was later seen in the Dail canteen having tea and sandwiches with Mr Deering and Mr O'Dowd and questions over his leadership fizzled as the week drew to a close.

Read more: If you're unhappy with Kenny, quit the party - minister tells dissenters

Read more: James Reilly hits back at party colleagues over his re-appointment during tense Fine Gael meeting

As the old saying goes: "he who wields the knife never wears the crown" and it's a notion that's surely crossed the minds of Mr Varadkar, Ms Fitzgerald and Mr Coveney amid Mr Kenny's difficulties.

It may be a tired cliche but just look across the water to the recent experience of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove - neither of whom are now prime minister despite their ambitions.

Here one backbencher that raised questions about Mr Kenny's leadership within the last couple of weeks agreed that none of the 'big three' wanted to act against Mr Kenny.

"At the end of the day, it's going to take one of them to move things on a bit at some stage," the TD added.

Another Fine Gael source - a Kenny supporter - said: "None of them had a hand, act or part in it that I can detect. They've shown him full support and he'll do it [step down] in his own time." The source predicted that Mr Kenny will still be Taoiseach this time next year.

Others disagreed with that assessment, with one TD saying that his decision to go will most likely come after the Budget.

"However, I genuinely don't think there will be a heave situation," the source said. "He [Mr Kenny] won't want the end of his career as Taoiseach to be on someone else's terms. He will want to walk himself... He'll want to get the Budget over the line and say that he's done what he set out to do."

Mr Kenny has proved resilient and survived the most serious questioning of his leadership since the failed heave of 2010. As the summer recess approaches, views are divided as to what recent turbulence means for his position.

One rebel TD said: "The last 10 days has been a major catalyst in speeding up the replacement of Kenny as leader." The Kenny supporter, meanwhile, said that the Taoiseach seeing off the dissent has "totally consolidated" his position. "There's no threat to him. It's entirely in his own hands. That's the way the party's left it".

The truth may be a combination of both - that Mr Kenny may have to go sooner than he had planned, but it will be his decision when it does happen.

If recent events have taught us one thing, it's that it's unlikely whoever becomes his successor will have wielded a knife to secure their position.

Sunday Independent

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