Lenihan still in for FF leadership
Finance Minister 'furious' at taking blame for budget cuts and bail out
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan will decide over Christmas whether to initiate a challenge to Taoiseach Brian Cowen for the right to lead an utterly demoralised Fianna Fail into the next general election.
Mr Cowen had felt he had done enough in the last two weeks to see off the challenge, but his recent burst of enthusiasm has done nothing to halt, let alone turn around, a dramatic decline in popular support for Fianna Fail.
Within Fianna Fail this weekend, therefore, a view gaining in support is that while a pre-election leadership challenge may "do more harm than good", it may be a risk worth taking in a last-ditch attempt to staunch a haemorrhage of its support.
Almost a year after the revelation of his diagnosis with cancer, Mr Lenihan, who insists that he is in good heath, is said by his supporters this weekend to be "poised to take the initiative" from Mr Cowen, and from Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin.
The re-opening of what was thought to have been an issue resolved until after the election follows what Mr Lenihan's supporters say is the "demoralising" intended retirement of two senior ministers, Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey, and the further declarations that several Fianna Fail TDs will not contest the election.
Mr Lenihan may be encouraged in his deliberations by a finding in the Sunday Independent/Quantum Research poll this weekend that two-thirds, or 66 per cent, say Fianna Fail should change its leader before the election.
But the public is divided on who should replace Mr Cowen. A telephone poll of 500 people nationwide found: Mr Lenihan (39 per cent); Mr Martin (39 per cent); Mary Hanafin (22 per cent).
Supporters of Mr Lenihan are furious that, as they see it, he was isolated by Mr Cowen, and by Mr Martin, and was allowed to take the blame for a damaging public-relations debacle leading to the EU-IMF deal, as well as the negative fallout from an austere Budget.
But supporters of Mr Cowen are accusing the Finance Minister of attempting to undermine the leadership of the Taoiseach to his own end, and remain convinced this weekend that the faltering challenge of Mr Lenihan has been thwarted.
Yesterday a Cowenite TD said: "Not this Lenihan thing again. It's over, it's done with. He doesn't have the balls for it. We know that now."
Mr Martin has formed an alliance with the Taoiseach that would see Mr Cowen lead Fianna Fail into the election, and in return Mr Cowen's supporters are expected to support Mr Martin for the leadership afterwards.
As a result, Mr Martin has risen in favour in recent opinion polls, to the point that he has now emerged as favourite to succeed Mr Cowen as leader of Fianna Fail. However, our poll indicates that the popularity of Mr Lenihan is resilient.
The push behind Mr Martin has prompted Mr Lenihan's supporters to urge that the Finance Minister seize the initiative now, something which he has indicated he will consider over Christmas.
Unless Fianna Fail can contrive to turn around its fortunes in the new year, an unlikely prospect, it faces the distinct possibility of a relative wipe-out in the general election from which it might never recover, and certainly not to its former level of support.
Fine Gael, meanwhile, will move in the new year to press home the slight advantage it has gained with the public recently, primarily through the performance of finance spokesman Michael Noonan.
While support for Fine Gael seems to be on the increase, at just three points ahead of its position in the last General Election, it is still far from the comfort zone it would prefer to be in at this stage.
The outcome of the election remains volatile as the year draws to a close, with several possibilities on the horizon, not least the prospect of a Labour/Sinn Fein-led Government, supported by hard-left Independent TDs.
However, the public still clearly favours a FG/Labour coalition. Asked which government they would like to see after the election, respondents said: FG/Labour (56 per cent); Labour/SF/Independ-ents (18 per cent); FG/FF (11 per cent); FG, with FF support (9 per cent); FF/Greens (6 per cent).