Taoiseach's fighting talk puts FF rebels on back foot -- for now
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen yesterday succeeded in strengthening his position as Fianna Fail leader -- for now -- after forcefully putting it up to rebels to take him on.
But internal dissent within the party over his leadership is still bubbling under, with Fianna Fail sources not ruling out a challenge before Christmas.
The leadership question is expected to come up in some form at a meeting of Fianna Fail TDs and senators in Leinster House this morning.
Even Mr Cowen's allies agree that a heave would have to be launched by next week to remove the Taoiseach before the General Election.
In a sign of the volatile climate within the party, Mr Cowen's critics were on the back foot after his battling performances in the Dail and in a series of interviews.
Following the passage of the opening stages of the draconian Budget, the Taoiseach robustly defended the Government's handling of the public finances and attacked the opposition parties.
Turning defence into attack, he criticised the rival policies of Fine Gael and Labour as "incoherent nonsense".
During rowdy scenes in the Dail, he questioned the speech-making skills of Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and accused him of "facing five different directions the same morning".
And he mocked the idea that Labour leader Eamon Gilmore was "the good guy", saying that the average PAYE taxpayer had always fared worse when his party was in government.
Mr Cowen played down the fallout from the Budget and rumours of leadership heaves against him, and instead concentrated on highlighting the differences between the potential future coalition partners of Fine Gael and Labour.
The Taoiseach made it clear yesterday that if the dissidents want him gone, they'll have to take him out.
"I am the democratically elected leader of my party. There is a procedure if anybody has views about having another leader of the party," he said.
But there is still a distinct lack of anybody to head up a heave.
The frontrunners for the leadership, if there was a vacancy, remain Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin and Finance Minister Brian Lenihan -- with Tourism Minister Mary Hanafin's chances regarded as slim by comparison.
Supporters of Mr Lenihan's cause are now said to be doing the Finance Minister damage within the party.
Fianna Fail TDs can't see an immediate threat to Mr Cowen emerging this week. Rebel TDs who were sounding colleagues out about signing a motion of no confidence -- which requires 18 TDs -- now appear to have given up and say it is up to the "officer class" of senior ministers to act.
"I have no doubt there are well over 18 people there, but whether they sign a motion is another matter," a Cowen ally said.
"His performances are good but this is his swansong. I think it will be sorted in the first week in January," a disgruntled TD said.
"The situation last week with the IMF-EU bailout was a lot more precarious. Things have calmed down a lot now but there are still murmurings," a middle-ground TD said.
"I'd prefer if we went into an election with another leader, but I won't be signing any motion," another party TD said.
"The only worry is people will say the passion today is too little, too late," a separate supporter of Mr Cowen said.