Sunday 15 December 2019

Kenny faces winter of discontent

Anxious backbenchers want to know the Taoiseach's exit strategy by Christmas as the leadership race heats up, writes Philip Ryan

Who's next? Taoiseach Enda Kenny has refused to give details of his exit strategy. Photo: Sam Boal/
Who's next? Taoiseach Enda Kenny has refused to give details of his exit strategy. Photo: Sam Boal/
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Enda Kenny just spent Christmas with his wife Fionnuala and the kids in the family home in Castlebar.

The hard-working Taoiseach put his feet up for a few days and enjoyed some well-earned downtime in front of the TV after a hectic year in office.

A couple of months earlier he brought the Government back from the brink of collapse after budget talks stalled over differences with Fianna Fail.

The Independent ministers weren't much help either and seemed to go out of their way to complain about everything.

Nonetheless, Budget 2017 passed and now Kenny is preparing to set out his exit strategy to his parliamentary party when he returns to Leinster House in January.

This is the ideal scenario to a growing and anxious number of Fine Gael backbenchers. It's been said many times, but it's worth repeating - no one knows when the next election will be.

Within Fine Gael the belief is that it will be Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin who will decide when it is held, not Enda Kenny.

Throughout government negotiations, Kenny promised colleagues he "will not be around forever". There was an intimation that he would step aside within two years.

But then, two weeks ago, Kenny held an impromptu press conference for political correspondents.

The media briefing, which his press advisers hope will be a regular event, is part of a continuing effort by some in the Taoiseach's office to force Kenny to emulate British Prime Minister David Cameron in everything he does. It should be noted that Cameron eventually ditched the monthly press briefings.

Speaking of the Taoiseach's advisers, sources say an internal survey of Fine Gaelers found a large number of members believe certain elements of the Taoiseach's press team are unnecessarily hostile in their dealings with the media, which in turn is damaging Kenny's image.

Anyway, back to the point. At his press conference Kenny refused to give any details of his exit strategy and even suggested he would be going nowhere until the current programme for Government is implemented.

Given that the Coalition's programme wasn't fully implemented, God knows when that could be. He also wouldn't answer questions on whether he would challenge a heave.

His comments rankled with a lot of backbenchers - even some of those he might have considered loyal.

There is an overwhelming belief that when the inevitable happens it should be a bloodless coup. No one wants a messy, drawn-out war.

In saying that, there is a large group of TDs and senators who would like to see Kenny put the party rather than himself first and leave either between the budget and the Christmas break or in January. If not, people could move.

"He might want to go under his own steam and flex the last little bit of muscle he has, but the blunt reality is if he digs in it won't be him who makes the decision," a TD said.

However, his detractors were not heartened by the outcome of the recent Fine Gael parliamentary party chairman vote.

Kildare South TD Martin Heydon, who was unfairly seen as a Kenny candidate, beat Carlow-Kilkenny's Pat Deering by a massive 44 to 17 votes. While he is not a Kenny loyalist, Heydon is believed to have picked up a lot of votes from the Taoiseach's supporters.

Deering has been a dissident voice under Kenny's regime and would also be seen as being very close to Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar. The vote was a blow for Varadkar's leadership ambitions and means he may have to re-evaluate his subtle but active campaign to succeed Kenny.

"Every vote is a test of the leader, but that's the biggest vote Kenny won anything by," a Varadkar supporter said.

Last week, Varadkar reached out to Fine Gael councillors, who all hold a vote in the leadership contest, with a commitment to give them access to more social welfare benefits.

He has also been ringing unsuccessful Fine Gael general election candidates in recent weeks to commiserate with them after the party's drubbing in the polls.

Within the parliamentary party, his colleagues have noticed the minister gradually become more friendly and approachable.

There's more pints in the Dail bar and also in pubs outside of Leinster House, which has led to suspicion from those who were not invited.

And that is one problem Varadkar has - people are wary of him. They think he is erratic and they are not sure if he can be trusted.

However, he is miles ahead of the other presumptive leadership candidate, Housing Minister Simon Coveney, when it comes to courting backbenchers.

TDs regularly complain about the frustrating lack of access to Coveney in both his current brief and when he was in the Department of Agriculture.

Varadkar, on the other hand, goes out of his way to reply to queries from colleagues. He is also enjoying his new role.

Coveney is seen as a hard worker who tends to put his brief before his ambitions.

He carried out research in his constituency not long after the general election, leading some to believe it was a first step in his leadership bid. But sources close to the minister say that the polling and focus groups evaluated how Coveney lost so many votes to Fianna Fail rather than question his future in Fine Gael.

Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald is doing a bit of canvassing herself. At the start of the month, she brought a group of female Fine Gael TDs for lunch to Matt the Tresher, a restaurant in Dublin city centre.

None of the candidates wants a leadership race in the medium-term, which might come as a disappointment to their supporters. Varadkar is believed to prefer waiting at least two years, but this depends on events.

The summer will be crucial for those involved in the succession game.

Beyond the watchful eyes of both politicians and the media working in Leinster House, the three candidates can develop their support base.

For the time being, Varadkar has a clear edge over the other would-be king and queen, and his only real competition is the man sitting at the top of the Cabinet table.

Sunday Independent

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