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Sam Smyth: Brian Lenihan the ultimate loser in Fianna Fail's most uncivil war

Brian Cowen won his battle for the leadership battle and Micheal Martin resigned from government - but Brian Lenihan was the ultimate loser in the escalating uncivil war in Fianna Fail.

After his vote of confidence Mr Cowen will command his party's campaign through the general election, but Mr Martin moved into pole position to lead them in opposition.

No longer shackled to Mr Cowen in cabinet, Mr Martin is now free to woo the TDs who didn't believe he was ready to become master and commander of Fianna Fail.

An unforced error on RTE's lunchtime news upended the strategy of Mr Lenihan, the other principal contender for the leadership, and it could finish off his bid for the Fianna Fail premiership.

An increasingly belligerent leadership tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of the party appears to be based on an old Arab proverb: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan were bad-mouthing each other a couple of months ago, but yesterday they teamed up to crush Mr Martin.

Two backbenchers as good as called Mr Lenihan a liar on radio and others supporting Mr Martin joined the pants-on-fire jibes at the Finance Minister through the afternoon.

And the furore over Mr Lenihan's unguarded comment had given Mr Martin a get-out-of-jail-free card even before the meeting began at 5.30pm.

The other declared leadership contenders, Mary Hanafin and Eamon O Cuiv, have been trying to stay out of the fray and the only woman candidate only spoke for a minute.

Ms Hanafin told the meeting last night that she intended to vote in accordance with what she told the Taoiseach last week -- which was interpreted as "Go now, Mr Cowen".

Her appearance on RTE's 'Frontline' on Monday night dented her credibility as a future leader when she steadfastly refused to say how she would vote last night.

It was always expected that she would be riding shotgun alongside Mr Martin in his leadership campaign, however Ms Hanafin disappointed many of her own supporters when she effectively opted for a vow of silence.

Mr O Cuiv was solidly behind Mr Cowen, but if the party tears itself apart he can offer a back-to-the-future journey back to the incorrupt austerity championed by his grandfather Eamon de Valera.

Mr Lenihan's grave error threw the strategy of the class of 2007 younger TDs into disarray: they were backing him to buy time to skip a generation when a leader was chosen to lead them into an election before 2016.

The younger TDs and junior minister elected in 2007 believe Fianna Fail needs to renew itself over the next four years by leaving behind the older ministers of the tainted governments from 1997.

The majority of them wanted another leader to take them into the upcoming election but decided to back Cowen to get Lenihan after an election.

Mr Lenihan's endorsement of him yesterday was expected to sway votes behind Mr Cowen who needed 36 of the 71 TDs to prevail.

But a succession of TDs claimed that Mr Lenihan had encouraged them to support his leadership bid last autumn when Fianna Fail was at 24pc in the opinion polls.

"He (Mr Lenihan) told me that he was confident he could add another 6pc or 7pc to our standing in the polls when I spoke to him last October," said a Cork backbencher.

Others backbenchers who supported Mr Martin said Mr Lenihan had given them the impression that he too wanted to remove Mr Cowen as leader.

Earlier in the day, Mr Martin launched a very thinly veiled attack on Mr Lenihan when he criticised the communicating of the IMF bailout as a watershed moment.

And Mr Lenihan's fall from grace on the airways yesterday should boost Micheal Martin to anointed leader-in-waiting.

Irish Independent