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Enda still greatest threat to his own leadership

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Enda Kenny: a hybrid approach to taxes is being proposed.

Enda Kenny: a hybrid approach to taxes is being proposed.

Bloomberg

Enda Kenny

Enda Kenny

Bloomberg

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Enda Kenny: a hybrid approach to taxes is being proposed.

NO matter how much you stage-manage set-piece events, you can't control controversy. Take Irish Champions Weekend - the biggest, richest horse-racing event in history, combining 10 top-class group races on two tracks, with record crowds and unrivalled international equine prestige. It was a wonderful success, yet its greatest talking point remains the dubious ride young jockey Joseph O'Brien gave heretofore invincible Australia. Social media attests to fervently hostile punters who maintain he was too complacent in taking the scenic widest route, losing many lengths; making his challenge prematurely; carrying a pound overweight; ultimately, to only lose by a neck. Other connoisseurs maintain this wonder-horse was over hyped, only to be found out in the heat of battle.

What has that hiatus to do with parliamentary party think-ins? Fine Gael sought stage-managed choreography from Fota Wildlife Park, with an endless succession of economic good news of improving Exchequer returns, enhanced growth forecasts, increased investment and employment. Phil Hogan lands the plum EU Commissioner prize of agriculture.

Michael Noonan secures a €1.5bn reduction in sovereign debt costs on IMF bailout loans. Instead of Fine Gael being portrayed as poster boys and cheerleaders for glad tidings, Kenny bizarrely opens up a public petty spat with Varadkar on health policy that gazumps positive party profiles with needless wrangles over Cabinet communications cohesion and a failure to implement previous policies. Enda's rebuke backfired. Instead, he raised questions of leadership insecurity, excessive internal authoritarianism and poor judgment.

Kenny hijacked a potentially perfect autumn re-launch. Fine Gael backbenchers were bemused behind closed doors when Enda leapt up, putting his arm around Leo to emphasise: 'We're all in this together' solidarity at the conclusion to the health minister's presentation. Embarrassed onlookers cringed.

Meanwhile, the full extent of Reilly's residual train wreck in health was being leaked from Hawkins House. The arithmetic for the 2014 health estimate had as much credibility as a fantasy football transfer market. HSE bosses warned late last year there'd be an overrun of €545m. They were accurate. The Haddington Road payroll and cancelled Medical Card savings were never attainable. Much worse were the ongoing consecutive cumulative carryovers of annual deficits (unpaid end of year overdrafts) which amounted to €419m.

It seems to have escaped attention that despite Kenny's long career he's never been minister of a large or complex department such as finance, health, environment, or enterprise/jobs. His tenure in tourism and trade in the 1990s and junior ministry in education in the 1980s never required thorough attention to policy detail or having to read and absorb minutiae of "300-page departmental documents". His pre-eminent political skills are focusing on top-line simplicity, delegation and people management. In the British honours lists it's the equivalent of an OBE (relying on Other Buggers' Efforts). So, he was blinded to the realities and dangers of the destabilisation of the health services and pursuit of utopian policies. If the next election becomes a referendum on health, it's a sure way for him to lose power.

Labour, meanwhile, is detached from the impacts of longer waiting lists for outpatients of 33,000, inpatients more than 10,000; public patient safety concerns from hospital CEOs; increased dependence on trolleys and unresolved discretionary medical card entitlements. Incredibly, Brendan Howlin drives an agenda of 300 more hospital bed closures, which will prevent 15,000 annual inpatient treatments and new €15 outpatient/X-ray charges. A&E facilities at Naas, Portlaoise, Ballinasloe, Cork's Mercy and Clonmel face night-time closures. Joan Burton seems blissfully unaware how her party could be annihilated by failure to protect essential public health services. Labour voters seek stable and secure NHS equivalence.

The Fine Gael retreat signified a changing of the Praetorian Guard. Gone from the hierarchy are Phil Hogan, Alan Shatter, James Reilly and Frank Flannery. Frances Fitzgerald now chairs the key general election steering committee, while Michael Noonan is the exclusive supremo of all matters economic and de facto deputy leader.

Neither can lay their hands on 25 votes the way Big Phil could in a crisis. Waiting in the long grass are various distinct anti-Kenny factions. These include: the 'betrayed', who were passed over for privately promised personal preferment; the expanding 'gang of five' independent ideologues; as well as the 'fearful', who amount to some 40 TDs who face losing their seat if local election results are repeated; smarting senators who narrowly avoided abolition. Scars from the abortive 2010 heave remain.

The consensus amongst political pundits is that Enda Kenny will, in all circumstances, lead Fine Gael into the next election. Invariably, such unanimity can ignore prevailing moods. Perhaps the man himself, with Haugheyesque antennae, detects in Leo a disloyalty tendency that could mature into untimely premature leadership ambitions. Hence his ill-judged, ill-timed public overreaction last week. My summation of the situation is that by-election results in Dublin south-west and Roscommon/East Galway are significant. Should Fine Gael poll below 20pc, it could bring into the open private doubts about Kenny's 12-year tenure at the top.

Inside Fine Gael, there's an unshakeable belief the protest vote for Sinn Fein and Independent left-wing candidates will evaporate in a general election scenario, with the economy the central issue. They dismiss any significant shift to socialism in a post-austerity world. However, two other clouds on the horizon could undermine their nerve. A Fianna Fail opinion poll recovery, catapulting them into the mid-20s, including gains amongst middle-class urbanites, could mean loaned votes of 2011 may return to their origins.

If Lucinda Creighton and credible Independents establish a viable new centre-right party, more palpable threats would be evident to the Fine Gael vote base.

Leo doesn't have the inclination or infrastructure to launch a leadership challenge. His agenda is merely to survive health.

The greatest threat to Kenny's leadership lies in his own blunders.

Irish Independent