Sunday 20 October 2019

May's bid to be 'Brexit PM' poses fresh challenge for Taoiseach's leadership

Taoiseach Enda Kenny pictured in Boston in March (Niall Carson/PA)
Taoiseach Enda Kenny pictured in Boston in March (Niall Carson/PA)
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Theresa May has decided that in order to make things better, they'll have to get worse first. As she stunned her own MPs, and even more so those in opposition, the British Prime Minister said: "I have concluded that the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions I must take."

In simple terms Mrs May, who was a low-key 'Remain' campaigner, wants a strong mandate that will allow her become the 'Brexit prime minister'.

It is a reverse of the situation here where Enda Kenny has anointed himself as our 'Brexit Minister' and is using the title to stay in power without much public support.

Yet on all sides of the political divide there is an acceptance that Mr Kenny has done the legwork and should lead our 'Team Ireland' into the negotiations.

The Taoiseach is wearing the green jersey. And the fact he has both personal and professional motives for doing so isn't a bad thing.

The same could be said of Mrs May. Apparently she decided it was time to call an election while walking with her husband in Wales over Easter.

"I have only recently and reluctantly come to this conclusion but now I have concluded it is the only way to guarantee certainty for the years ahead," she said.

Read More: May goes for broke on Brexit

It's hard to imagine she would be running to the polls if the Conservative party wasn't facing an Opposition devoid of charisma, imagination and energy.

Even Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar admitted as much despite the fact most politicians publicly claim they don't let opinion polls influence decisions.

"I'm sure she looks at the opinion polls just as all politicians do," he said candidly. "And I'm sure she's also conscious of the fact that she has a relatively small majority and wants to strengthen that.

"I think the opposition in Britain is in total disarray and the Conservatives are 20 points ahead in the polls."

After just 10 months at the head of her government, Mrs May claimed the decision to be made by voters in the election "will be all about leadership".

"It will be a choice between strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your prime minister, or weak and unstable coalition government, led by Jeremy Corbyn, propped up by the Liberal Democrats - who want to reopen the divisions of the referendum - and Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP," she said in a devastatingly accurate first shot of the campaign.

Back in Dublin it didn't take long for the Fine Gael wags to start speculating what all of this would mean for the leadership of this country.

There was minimal talk about how it will impact on the Government's Brexit strategy, and more about whether it will do anything to alter Enda Kenny's exit strategy.

Two theories were quickly put forward. One fits with the growing speculation that Mr Kenny may hang on until after next October's Budget.

Some sources believe Mr Kenny would use the British election as further evidence for why we should keep a steady hand on the tiller until the Brexit negotiations are fully underway.

The Taoiseach has already said he wants to see a power-sharing government formed in Northern Ireland before stepping aside to make way for Mr Varadkar or Simon Coveney.

He said that and Brexit should "take precedence over anything else".

Government sources last night admitted the ongoing stalemate in the North could result in a second Assembly election to coincide with the UK vote on June 8. That would see Mr Kenny's departure date put back until at least the middle of summer.

But other sources said Theresa May's calculated move offers an ideal opportunity for Fine Gael to simultaneously sort itself out.

"If the British PM has time for an election during Brexit, surely Fine Gael has time for an internal one," said one minister, noting that the pace of the Brexit talks is likely to slow pending the outcome of the elections.

Mr Varadkar was the only minister to appear in public yesterday, less than an hour after the shock press conference at Downing Street. Is he worried Mr Kenny might use the latest upheaval in Britain to stick around longer than planned? "Not in the slightest."

While everyone is speculating, nobody truly knows the Taoiseach's timeline.

Whether the events of yesterday change it is unclear but they certainly give Mr Kenny food for thought.

Irish Independent

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