TAOISEACH Brian Cowen's days as Fianna Fail leader are numbered despite his pledge to limp on in power and push through draconian Budget cutbacks.
Mr Cowen will tonight come face to face with rebel backbenchers calling for his head after he pledged to hold a general election in the New Year.
Mr Cowen refused to call an immediate election after being plunged into the greatest crisis of his leadership as the Green Party dramatically pulled the plug on the Coalition, and a number of his own TDs called for his resignation.
Backbenchers were attempting to sound out leadership contenders last night. It is believed some rebel TDs put Mr Cowen on notice that he could face a confidence motion in the coming weeks.
Mr Cowen said the Government would continue to publish the four-year budgetary plan, pass the Budget with its €6bn in cuts and taxes and complete the negotiations with the IMF and the EU on the bailout.
He did so even as the world's biggest credit rating agency raised serious concerns over the "bailout".
"We must proceed with this Budget and we will not be deflected from that duty," Mr Cowen said. "To delay would do great damage to our interests."
He called a meeting of Fianna Fail ministers after Green Party leader John Gormley demanded a general election by the end of January next year.
Government sources said there was a drive among some within Fianna Fail for Mr Cowen to go to Aras an Uachtarain to call an election.
But during talks with the Cabinet yesterday, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Brendan Smith were totally opposed to an immediate election.
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan was also firmly against this course of action.
However, it is understood Mary Coughlan, Eamon O Cuiv and Batt O'Keeffe encouraged Mr Cowen to examine the options. Mary Hanafin was not in either camp and Micheal Martin was in Brussels for an EU summit so he was not back until late.
"The rest of them were all over the place," a source told the Irish Independent.
Mr Cowen said he would continue with his job as Taoiseach and Fianna Fail leader and would only seek a dissolution of the Dail after the current budgetary process is complete.
He refused to say if he would lead Fianna Fail into the next election, only saying it would be "an issue for the party to decide".
But Mr Cowen's position seems to be increasingly untenable and he is expected to be replaced by either Micheal Martin, Brian Lenihan, Mary Hanafin or Dermot Ahern before the next election campaign. No definite successor has yet emerged. Even among a number of Mr Cowen's loyal supporters, there is a view that he cannot possibly lead the party into the campaign.
Mr Cowen will come under huge pressure to indicate he is going to stand down before the election at a meeting of the Fianna Fail parliamentary party tonight.
"I predict murder at the parliamentary party tomorrow. There'll be war there. I know there will," a party backbencher said. A junior minister added: "We're back into Haughey-style parliamentary party meetings now."
Department of Finance sources indicated the Finance Bill could be passed by the end of January, saying it was just a matter of giving Oireachtas committees priority to scrutinise the legislation.
But there are increasing question marks over the ability of the Government to pass the Budget.
The world's biggest credit rating agency, Moody's Investors Service, said the EU/IMF bank rescue plan would simply shift more of the burden of support for Irish banks from the ECB to the Irish taxpayer, and worsen the country's debt problems.
In what could be a serious blow to the credibility of the plan, Moody's warned it would "crystallise more bank-contingent liabilities on the government balance sheet, and increase the Irish sovereign's debt burden".
Ireland now faces a "multi-notch" reduction in its credit rating from Moody's next month.
Mr Cowen last night defied calls for him to stand down and instead attempted to put the onus on the opposition parties to back his Budget.
Flanked by all the Fianna Fail ministers at Government Buildings, he linked the survival of his Government to the ongoing discussions with the IMF and the EU about the financial bailout for the State. "This country's interests at the moment go well beyond any personal consideration of me as Taoiseach."