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Countdown on for Kenny to depart as the unofficial race for leadership kicks off

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'There’s no fuzziness or grey area here. Nobody in Fine Gael will admit it publicly, but the race to find a new leader has officially begun'

'There’s no fuzziness or grey area here. Nobody in Fine Gael will admit it publicly, but the race to find a new leader has officially begun'

'There’s no fuzziness or grey area here. Nobody in Fine Gael will admit it publicly, but the race to find a new leader has officially begun'

It's going to be a marathon, not a sprint, but make no mistake, the starting gun has been fired on the Fine Gael leadership contest. And the person who discharged the pistol was the Taoiseach himself.

Enda Kenny clearly felt he needed to clarify his future plans after Paul Kehoe clumsily suggested the Taoiseach would lead Fine Gael to, in political terms, infinity and beyond.

By all accounts the Taoiseach, while accepting his chief whip remains one of his most loyal lieutenants, was "very pissed off" with Kehoe.

Kenny realised the notion of a leader planning to stay at the helm beyond two elections smacks of presumption and arrogance. It makes potential successors restless and, given the electorate's fairly lukewarm perception of Kenny, runs the risk of seriously alienating the public.

Faced with the prospect of two more terms of Enda Kenny, the worry would be that voters might decide to nip the whole thing in the bud at the next election by deserting the Government.

However, by moving to head off one potential problem, Kenny has - probably unavoidably - created a new one. Because the countdown clock on his tenure has now begun.

The notion of Kenny continuing as leader into the election after next and beyond was always fanciful. He has already led FG for 13 years and will turn 65 shortly after the next election.

The suggestion that he might still be leader/Taoiseach into his 70s has little credibility; he would hardly want that, never mind the voters.

Common sense indicated that, if Fine Gael won the coming general election, Kenny would step aside in the course of the next Dáil - but ideally he would have avoided specifically spelling that out.

The question inevitably would have arisen at some point about his plans, but it could have been deflected. However, now there's no fuzziness or grey area. In his own words, Kenny has "no intention of staying beyond the remit of the next government".

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In the real world, that means an exit for the Taoiseach in 2018 or, at the latest, 2019 (assuming of course he's returned to office in the coming election).

There's no way as a sitting Taoiseach he could stay beyond the halfway point of a term if he's planning to stand down in the lifetime of that Dáil.

The worry for Kenny is that he may quickly come to be seen as a lame-duck leader. It's a phrase more commonly used about US presidents in their second term than taoisigh who don't serve fixed terms of office. But politics is the same the world over - once you say you're going, you're halfway to being gone already.

That's the worst-case scenario. It's possible the public will digest Kenny's declaration and promptly forget about it. David Cameron was in the same position before the UK general election when he made his 'two shredded wheat are better than three' comment about not seeking a third term. There were dire forecasts at the time about Labour making hay about the uncertainty - 'Vote for Cameron and get who?'

However, it quickly passed as a story and we all know what happened in the general election.

Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin might still be tempted to play a similar 'Vote for Kenny and get who?' card here. But, given Kenny's low poll rating, it may not prove the smartest tactic.

The Taoiseach won't thank anyone for pointing it out, but Fine Gael might be quite happy at the idea of people thinking if they vote for Enda in the next election, they might end up with Leo Varadkar or Frances Fitzgerald.

Kenny has surprised people by generally performing well in the role of Taoiseach, but there weren't too many reports from the last two elections of Fine Gael candidates knocking on doors and being told: 'I'm voting for you because I want Enda Kenny as Taoiseach'. He's just not that kind of inspirational leader.

Fine Gael would also inevitably respond to any such opposition tactic by arguing that, unlike Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin, it has never embraced the cult of a leader and is comfortable with the notion of the mantle being passed to the next first among equals.

That won't, of course, stop the speculation about who that 'next first among equals' might be.

Leo Varadkar is the bookies' favourite at 7/4, followed by Simon Coveney at 9/4 with Frances Fitzgerald and Richard Bruton back at 5/1. Bookmakers don't often get it wrong. This might be one such occasion.

Fitzgerald, particularly if the succession happens mid-term as opposed to after an election defeat, is the real front-runner.

Varadkar is currently the public's favourite and that clearly carries some weight. However, the Justice Minister would be the choice of the Kenny wing of Fine Gael. In the current parliamentary party at least, that would be decisive given TDs' influence on the Fine Gael electoral college that will pick the next leader.

The prospect of a first woman Taoiseach and Fitzgerald's ability to position herself as a compromise candidate between Varadkar and Coveney would be a strong selling point. As she is actually nine months older than Kenny, there's the added attraction of a likely short tenure at the top.

Not as short, however, as the time until Enda Kenny bows out. Nobody in FG will admit it publicly, but the leadership race has officially begun.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show at 10am on Newstalk.com


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