Kenny set to stay on as Taoiseach - and may fight another election
Senior Fine Gael TDs believe Enda Kenny will continue as party leader and Taoiseach at least until next summer.
And despite Mr Kenny's assertions that he will not lead the party into the next election, it is now likely he will have to lead the party in any unexpected election between now and the Dáil summer holiday next July. The move is a blow to contenders for the succession, Social Protection Minister, Leo Varadkar, and his Housing Minister, Simon Coveney. Supporters of both contenders are already active seeking support for a leadership campaign.
Mr Varadkar was perceived to be better fixed for the fray, especially if there was a short election contest. But Mr Coveney enhanced his chances in the past week by being seen as facing down Fianna Fáil demands for changes to his legislation on rent control.
Senior party figures have argued in the past few days that Mr Kenny is needed to stay on to ensure continuity and stability in both the fragile minority Coalition and also to anchor the upcoming Brexit negotiations due to start in March.
One senior TD yesterday said that Mr Kenny's decision not to appoint a dedicated "Brexit Minister", and taking the lead role himself in that process, signalled an intention to stay on in Government Buildings and as party leader. Rebels who argued for an early change of leader have said that nobody can predict the timing of the next election, so the leadership issue must be dealt with quickly.
But Mr Kenny's supporters yesterday pointed out that the curious Dáil arithmetic meant that 27 of the current crop of 50 Fine Gael TDs hold either a senior or a junior minister post. "That gives Enda Kenny great security. Those who want to see him gone are seen by many in the parliamentary party as 'disappointed people'," the Kenny supporter said.
Many TDs and senators in Fine Gael also see a leader change at this stage as likely to bring on an early general election, which they feel the party is ill-prepared to face.
"Fianna Fáil would not want to see a new leader settle in in Fine Gael. At the same time, there might be a rush of blood to the head in our party, which could also see an unwise move to another general election," another Fine Gael TD said.
Last autumn, a number of backbench TDs, including Kerry TD Brendan Griffin, Waterford TD John Deasy, and Louth TD Fergus O'Dowd were urging that the leadership issue be addressed. Others, including Cork South-West TD Jim Daly, and Carlow-Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan, have stressed the need for him to tell the party when he is going to leave.
But nothing came of the unrest and many believe that it has since calmed for the foreseeable future. When the party gathered in Newbridge, Co Kildare, last September ahead of a new Dáil year, there were private rumblings that matters would come to a head over the Christmas recess. "It now looks that the party is more united than it has been for some time and the matter has been put off at least until the summer. There has been a focus on party reorganisation, which has helped defuse tensions."
Yesterday, Health Minister Simon Harris hinted he may contest the leadership, once the Taoiseach had left of his own accord. Other potential contenders include Frances Fitzgerald and Paschal Donohoe.