Friday 23 August 2019

Fine Gael is not yet prepared to face a 'post-Enda Kenny world'

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is not likely to wave goodbye to power for another while yet. Photo: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Enda Kenny is not likely to wave goodbye to power for another while yet. Photo: Tom Burke
John Downing

John Downing

Willie O'Dea, in a classic flourish of Limerick wit, just days ago observed: "I would not be surprised to see Enda looking down from the telegraph poles as we head out to canvass the next election."

It's a commonly held view at Leinster House, across all parties, that Enda Kenny - the man who would not lead the party into the next election - is in no hurry to quit. It is the view in the party where it matters most, Fine Gael. It will be 15 years next June since the Mayo man took over the battered remnants of a party, and defied periodic waves of damning criticism, to become taoiseach twice.

Along the way he was dubbed a "lucky general". No politician could have too much luck in that most vicious of trades. But Mr Kenny has at times also shown the steel and persistence to allow him keep on keeping on. In an odd way, the 'lucky general' tag has stuck. True, he lost a general election - but he lost in a way that made his return to office near inevitable. Ultimately, it did not seem to matter that Mr Kenny's unconvincing performances on the hustings were a big factor in his party dropping down to 50 TDs.

Once it came down to Dáil arithmetic, Mr Kenny played the better game in cobbling together a minority hybrid coalition, kept in office by the grace and favour of Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin. It was far from pretty to look at it being assembled, and it has looked very unassured on many occasions since taking office on May 6 last.

But the reality is that the curious Dáil and Government numbers left Mr Kenny with an abundance of goodies to give out. More than half of the parliamentary party got either senior or junior ministries.

Internal party critics have been limited to a number of backbench TDs including Kerry TD Brendan Griffin, Waterford TD John Deasy, and Louth TD Fergus O'Dowd. Others, including Cork South-West TD Jim Daly and Carlow-Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan, have stressed the need for him to tell the party when he is going to leave.

Mr Kenny's supporters characterise them as "disappointed and dispossessed". Those who got preferment, even those who do not especially care for Mr Kenny, wonder how they would fare in a "post-Enda Kenny world".

There is no evidence of any great taste within the Fine Gael parliamentary party to rush into such a political situation. People in Government posts have to weigh the likelihood of making the 'first team' of one or other of his would-be successors. In many cases, it may look a better bet to stay with the status quo.

The names of the putative successors have been well aired for a long time. Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Simon Coveney head the list, with Justice Minister and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, Health Minister Simon Harris, and even Education Minister Richard Bruton also rating periodic mentions.

Odds remain against any of these on the list taking the initiative and going for broke. The experience of June 2010, when Mr Kenny surprised many by defeating a heave led by his key lieutenants, still lingers in the memory. They know he'd be very hard to shift.

Mr Kenny's trump card is the need for continuity and stability. The current strange Coalition is rather hopeless and can do very little. But 10 months after the last inconclusive general election, the one point of agreement across all parties and none at Leinster House is that nobody wants another general election any time soon.

That does not mean we will not have an election in 2017. Events may very well overcome the limited skills of our current crop of TDs.

Fianna Fáil's attitude to the prospective change of Fine Gael leadership will be very important. At his back-to-Dáil party gathering last September, Mr Martin articulated the official view that replacement of Mr Kenny need not cause a general election.

But Fianna Fáil does not want to see Mr Kenny replaced and would be loath to allow any successor get his or her legs under them. At the same time, a successor to Mr Kenny may deem it timely to seek a better electoral mandate. Both those realities suggest an early general election after his exit would be very likely.

Many of his supporters lament that he ever said he would not lead the party into the next general election. The simple reality is that nobody can predict the timing of that election. If that pledge had any meaning, he would go now. Since he has no intention of doing any such thing, there is an inevitability to speculation that Mr Kenny will in fact again lead Fine Gael next time out.

The justification is the need for continuity and stability, both internally and externally. The man's considerable inter-personal skills and his judgment of people are important for keeping the creaking Coalition on track.

But his supporters also argue that his EU contacts are crucial in the upcoming Brexit talks. It is true that he has been an assiduous attender at the EPP Christian Democrat gatherings for the last 15 years and is well got with EU colleagues. However, there will not be much room for sentiment in the EU-UK divorce talks due to kick off in March.

The Kenny camp points to his increased popularity rating in the most recent Ipsos-MRBI survey. At 36pc, it is his highest ranking in years. All of that and greatness thrust upon him as well. It will be an interesting 2017 for Mr Kenny and all who like their politics.

Irish Independent

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