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Another Fine Gael mess Enda has gotten them into

WITH all the attention on the Government's banking bailout and the bond markets, there is a danger that we will lose sight of the other great freefall of last week: Enda Kenny's political career. Like the small boy who feels he might have got away with making a separate mess at a children's party where the house got wrecked, cute hoor Enda may have thought he got away with it. Keep the head down, Phil, and the moment, and this opinion poll, will pass. After all, everyone's watching those bond markets.

But a lot like those banking figures, the sums for Enda and Fine Gael just keep getting worse. Quite simply, Enda Kenny has to be replaced as Fine Gael leader, and be replaced by someone who will re-galvanise the party and help it recover its momentum. It is unbelievable that with such an unpopular Government and the economy in turmoil, Fine Gael is going down in the opinion polls. It is just about level with Fianna Fail, a party which has provoked a seemingly decent man to drive a cement lorry through the gates of Leinster House. That's some achievement for the government-in-waiting. Or should that be, former government-in-waiting.

The way things are going, Fine Gael could end up being something akin to the Greens in a future coalition, dominated by the Gilmore Reds.

But still the media step around the Enda issue, diplomatically glossing over his obvious shortcomings and continuing to play into that unpleasant anti-intellectual atmosphere which prevailed around the time of the attempted heave, when we all supposedly bought into the so-called street wisdom of the cute-hoor brigade in mocking Bruton and talking up Enda, the wily victor.

It's what Eamon Dunphy used to call "decent skinsmanship". Ah, sure he's a decent skin. Yes, Enda is a decent skin, but he's not a whole lot else and that's the problem. Let's face it, the Bruton-supporting rebels were absolutely right, and look how quickly they've been proved right. It's only months after the attempted heave, and the party is plummeting under Enda.

Last week, I referred to the line about a previous Fine Gael leader that, if it was raining soup, he'd be running around with a fork. But with Enda, it's worse than that. He'd be inside waiting for directions from the handlers about whether to go outside with a spoon, a knife or a fork.

Indeed, the most cruel thing said after Brian Cowen's recent early-morning saga was that he is actually more cogent and persuasive while supposedly hungover than Enda Kenny is sober. This is not just an idle quip. Go back and check on how Cowen was later that day when he utterly dismissed Kenny's uncosted, contradictory plans on correcting the public finances.

Enda is a fundamentally decent guy with a high energy rate and an affable one-on- one charisma, a genuine, if monotonous, confidence and a country-boy charm which has inspired his party to recover from the wipeout of the 2002 election.

But it is no longer enough to have revived the grassroots of the party, we need to inspire the parched earth of the whole country, and the wider public, and this is not happening with Enda. He is especially not connecting in Dublin and in the urban areas; nor is he connecting with the floating middle-class voters -- crucial constituencies.

He is a technocrat who relies upon sound bites and a so-called common-man vernacular when what we want is someone who does the gritty detail as well as the big picture.

Anyway, what does it matter now what the reasons are for Enda's failure? The figures speak for themselves. Long before the current run of terrible opinion polls, the rot had set in. You could say that the party has been in a three-year slump, despite its vast array of talents and its high-energy opposition.

In 2007 Fine Gael had 27 per cent support. Three years later, after arguably the most calamitous economic turmoil in our history and a collapse in the Government's popularity, the party had only added one per centage point to its support. Since then, it has been falling and may well continue to fall as the bandwagon effect of Labour's stunning momentum takes hold.

It's time to say stop. On the basis of this demise, Kenny should step aside immediately and let someone else take over. If he were manager of a top football team, he would be long gone. In staying on, he is only demoralising his troops further and compounding his party's problems, which go beyond Enda, incidentally, so there's work to be done.

It's all very well to have Leo Varadkar loyally defending him on the airwaves, but Leo has left us with the killer line which just about sums up the limits of Enda: he is not the kind of leader you'd want to have answering the phone if the European Central Bank called at 3am. And these days, the European Central Bank, and the Commission, will be calling a lot at 3am.

But Enda will probably not go and, by stubbornly clinging on, it is possibly the first time in his political career that he is doing something which does not show integrity and decency, and which does not indicate that he's doing what's best for his party.

It instead shows that he's just out to save his own vanity. If he goes now, or at least arranges a harmonious handover to Bruton sooner rather than later, he will have cemented his reputation as the man who led Fine Gael back from the brink. If he stays on, then he will be a lame duck leader who has lost the support of his party, and thereafter their respect.

If he cannot be persuaded, then it is time for Phil Hogan to put him into the political equivalent of an empty room with a revolver and bottle of whiskey on the table and expect Enda to do the honourable thing. For that is the point about pragmatists like Hogan: they should know which way the wind is blowing. After all, the big question for the Kenny's dwindling band of loyalists is this: which comes first, the welfare of the leader or the welfare of the party? It's time for change.

Sunday Independent