Friday 20 September 2019

Does Enda secretly intend to lead Fine Gael into next election?

To ensure his own survival, the Taoiseach has levelled the playing field between Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney

'The by now legendary leader of Fine Gael who is giving young pretenders to this throne the run-around.' Photo: PA
'The by now legendary leader of Fine Gael who is giving young pretenders to this throne the run-around.' Photo: PA
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

There was only one winner in politics last week and it was not Simon Coveney, the Housing Minister who delivered a blow to Fianna Fail.

The real winner was Enda Kenny, who must now be sorely tempted by the prospect of leading Fine Gael into the next election.

Another outcome last week is that election will be sooner rather than later - certainly before 2018, when the 'confidence and supply' arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail is due to end.

The real significance of that date, however, is that technically Kenny has another two years as Fine Gael leader before he must honour his bounced-into commitment to step down as leader before that election.

But, well, if the election were to come before that date, what can he do but manfully lead Fine Gael into the field again?

Let us leave aside the issue of playing politics with people's lives, other than to note that the row between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail was akin to two bald men fighting over a comb.

The bottom line in the rental row is that the free market still rules, irrespective of which of the two main parties is in power. It is just a matter of to what extent.

So in the absence of distinct policy differences on this issue between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, we are left to analyse the political consequences.

That brings us back to Kenny, the by now legendary leader of Fine Gael who is giving young pretenders to this throne the run-around.

To that extent, you have to tip your hat to the Taoiseach. The man was not kidding when he said he had his mojo back.

The public thinks so too. The most recent opinion poll showed his satisfaction rating up 7pc to 36pc, within the margin of error of Micheal Martin.

That is some turnaround for the man who was blamed more than anybody else for Fine Gael's election meltdown this year.

Mark my words: all of this is giving Kenny pause to reconsider his stated intention to step down. Fionnuala too, I'd wager.

Here is what I believe really happened last week.

In recent weeks, the view in Leinster House was that Varadkar had an almost unassailable lead in the contest to succeed Kenny.

He was said to have the backing of 30 members of the parliamentary party, after all.

In Kenny's eyes, that makes him a dangerous man.

For his own continued survival Kenny needed to level the playing field between Varadkar and Coveney.

His failure to do so would have left Varadkar confident to directly challenge him for the leadership.

Not that the Social Protection minister necessarily intends to. He who wields the sword does not wear the crown, and all that.

But there is no doubt the impression has been created that Leo and Leo alone is the coming man, which has created a 'just a matter of time' view. So, last week Kenny bigged up Coveney, Varadkar's main challenger for the crown.

That may be unfair on the Housing Minister, who is grappling with difficult issues in a tendentious Dail. But there is no doubt he would have had to cave in to Fianna Fail had he not received the unequivocal backing of the Taoiseach.

Consider this, however: Kenny's spinners were out of the traps last week putting it about that it was their man who put a bit of steel in Coveney's spine.

In other words, it was not Coveney who delivered a bloody nose to Fianna Fail, but Kenny himself.

After last week's events, the facile analysis is that the Housing Minister is back in the race to succeed Kenny, or rather, that Varadkar will not have it all his own way.

There is also truth to that, but the real truth is that while Fine Gael backbenchers mull over Leo and Simon, Enda 'Man of Steel' Kenny sails on.

We are going to need a Man of Steel in difficult Brexit negotiations, after all, which will begin next year and run into 2018.

Why do you think the Taoiseach has steadfastly refused to appoint a dedicated Brexit minister?

Instead, he has chosen to gather Ireland's position not only around his office, but personally around Enda Kenny.

That can hardly be because he is an expert on the intricacies of Brexit; rather it is because Fine Gael will be slow to dump the man on the issue at such a delicate time.

So, Kenny took a measured gamble last week. The odds were in his favour. Micheal Martin could hardly prevent the passage of important legislation; less still would be to cause a general election a week before Christmas.

There is a downside to last week's schmozzle between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, however.

It is that Fianna Fail can not afford to take another such hit - nobody likes a weak-looking opposition, after all.

Barry Cowen may have led with his chin somewhat last week, but he did outwardly take this first defeat gracefully.

But if I know the Cowens like I think I know the Cowens, he will be smarting.

Never mind: the mother of all battles is coming on water charges.

Fianna Fail will have to box more cleverly on that one.

Water charges are dead: the only issue is whether to refund those who have paid or go after those who have not.

Coveney and Varadkar want to pursue those who have not, perhaps with attachment orders to their social welfare payments. Oh dear.

Fianna Fail will need to take a firm position on this issue.

As of yet, however, neither Martin nor Cowen has shown their hand.

They have until the end of March to decide. The wiser course would be to refund.

But if Fine Gael delivers another blow to Fianna Fail on water charges, then Fianna Fail will start to look weaker still.

The outcome of the rental row indicates that both parties, more likely than not, will have to square up to each other for real on this issue.

As of now, my view remains that the Government will struggle to survive the water charges issue.

And, lo and behold, Kenny will be in poll position to lead Fine Gael into the subsequent election.

The real question is can he win? Here's a thought for Fianna Fail: maybe he can.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss