A CONCERTED effort will be made to remove Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael within the next two weeks and to have him replaced by Richard Bruton -- the man whose leadership challenge narrowly failed just four months ago.
f the heave is successful, it may spark a series of events that could ultimately see the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, also being replaced by Finance Minister Brian Lenihan.
A Sunday Independent/ Quantum Research opinion poll has found that 68 per cent want Mr Cowen to step down as Taoiseach before the next general election. Forty-six per cent said Mr Lenihan would be the best leader of Fianna Fail, followed by Micheal Martin on 13 per cent.
It is understood that if Mr Bruton became leader of the Opposition, he would be open to meaningful negotiations with Mr Lenihan in order to ensure the passage of a Budget in December that is universally regarded as of huge importance to the national interest.
In our poll, a massive 71 per cent said Mr Kenny should now stand down as leader of Fine Gael and 61 per cent said Mr Bruton would be the best Fine Gael leader, followed by Leo Varadkar on 16 per cent.
But last night, in a potentially significant development, the Taoiseach said that Mr Lenihan would make available to the Opposition a "designated official" from the Department of Finance "to faciliate and arrange brief-ings" and to "bring forward constructive ideas in the national interest".
Mr Cowen's offer has increased the likelihood that the broad parameters of the Budget will be agreed in advance, and passed in December. With events in Fine Gael and Fianna Fail rapidly developing this weekend, it may also serve to secure his own position as Taoiseach.
On Friday, Mr Kenny ruled out what would effectively be a new version of the so-called 'Tallaght Strategy', on the grounds that while it may be good for the country, it would cost Fine Gael votes.
But last night, Senator Eugene Regan, a supporter of Mr Bruton and a respected voice within Fine Gael, told this newspaper: "Fine Gael has to work with the Government to resolve the economic crisis the country is facing. The policy of blind opposition is no longer sustainable."
Yesterday, Mr Kenny was said by his supporters to be determined to resist once again what is expected this time to be a co-ordinated challenge to his leadership.
His determination to continue as leader is dependent on the support of four senior figures on the party's front bench: Michael Noonan, Phil Hogan, James O'Reilly and Alan Shatter.
With the continued support of these TDs, Mr Kenny is said to be willing to gamble that his opponents will shy away from a second heave.
However, even if that assessment is proved to be wrong, Mr Kenny still believes that he has sufficient support to see off Mr Bruton for a second time.
But the large swathe of Fine Gael TDs and senators who are known to oppose outright Mr Kenny's continued leadership were yesterday anxious to let it be known that a second heave will take place if needs be.
Although Mr Kenny's opponents would prefer to avoid another divisive challenge, they are also said to be determined and convinced that there is now sufficient support to depose the leader if he refuses to step down.
Crucially, at least five members of the parliamentary party, mostly members of the Seanad, who did not back the previous attempt to topple Mr Kenny, are now said to have either committed or indicated that they are willing to support Mr Bruton this time.
A meeting of the parliamentary party on Wednesday is expected to be a hugely significant moment in determining the leadership issue once and for all.
At that meeting, Mr Kenny is expected to announce a shake-up of the Fine Gael backroom team, which will see Mark Mortell come in as political director, as well as changes to its communications team and strategy.
He expects that this will assuage concerns within the parliamentary party. But yesterday, his opponents scoffed at that suggestion.
"The problem is not Fine Gael. The problem is Enda Kenny," said one TD.
A random poll of Fine Gael TDs and senators, conducted on Friday and Saturday by the Sunday Independent, has found strong opposition to Mr Kenny, some of it unexpectedly trenchant.
The opposition to Mr Kenny now seems to be emanating from the party membership nationwide, as expressed either directly to members of the parliamentary party or through elected representatives at local level.
The party's senators, in particular, are understood to be under sustained pressure from councillors to support a challenge to Mr Kenny.
But the rank and file membership is also making its feelings known this weekend to TDs and senators, according to information gleaned from members of the parliamentary party in all four provinces.
They are motivated, in the first instance, by recent opinion polls, which showed support for Fine Gael dropping even further. Mr Kenny's already severely limited popularity has stalled and there is now the serious spectre of Labour taking such a commanding lead that Eamon Gilmore may now lead the next Government.
But the disclosure on Thursday as to the extent of the economic crisis is believed to be at least an equal factor in their assessment that Mr Kenny should either step down or be removed and replaced by Mr Bruton, an economist who has consistently demonstrated widespread popular appeal.
One TD said: "Decency and good manners destroyed the leaders of the last heave. The leaders went to Kenny and gave him fair warning. The same decency and good manners are now dragging Fine Gael into the dust."
Another TD said: "The people who led the last heave are those who care most about Fine Gael. They are all too aware that this may be Fine Gael's last chance to form a Government -- and all too aware of the tragic paradox that Enda Kenny, the man who brought the party back from the brink, is now about to push it into an abyss."
A senator said: "The bottom line is that the public do not want Enda Kenny. Richard Bruton commands the confidence of key constituencies, such as Dublin and other urban centres, as well as women."
There is a widespread belief that senators who are aspiring to be TDs, such as Jerry Buttimer in Cork, Paudie Coffey in Waterford and Fidelma Healy Eames in Galway, will fail to win Dail seats unless there is a change of leadership. But the election threat to Fine Gael TDs and senators is more widespread than that.
A senator added: "Still they dither, because they cannot bring themselves to face the cruel fact that Kenny must go if they are to survive. Like shipwrecked survivors sharing a boat, they cannot bring themselves to cannibalise one of their own -- even if he is a political corpse."
However, the independent senator Eoghan Harris, when contacted yesterday, offered the following: "The problem now is that Bruton may be perceived as being so bruised by the last heave that he has no appetite for another attempt. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"Bruton has been in the hurt locker and it has left him a lot tougher. Around Leinster House, he seems to have a new gravitas, almost a grimness. He looks a lot more like a leader. I think this time he is ready to get blood on his shirt."
On Friday, in the face of a growing consensus within Fine Gael, Mr Kenny rejected a call by the businessman Denis O'Brien for a "united front" from political parties in the form of a 'Tallaght II'.
Mr Kenny said there would be no repeat of Fine Gael's support of the economic policies of Fianna Fail's minority government from 1987 to 1989.
"Listen, I was a member of Fine Gael when we had Tallaght 1. While it was wonderful from a national perspective to support the Tallaght Strategy, Fine Gael had no power or influence over it and suffered at the polls as a consequence," he said.