Monday 27 January 2020

Kenny parties and sets sights on October 2018

It's been a good month for the Taoiseach, but the rumblings about a replacement just won't go away

Staying: Enda Kenny Photo: Justin Farrelly
Staying: Enda Kenny Photo: Justin Farrelly
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Taoiseach Enda Kenny will wake up this morning after enjoying a few pints with the party faithful last night in the Burlington Hotel in Dublin, where he hosted the annual Fine Gael presidential dinner.

On Friday, Kenny announced he intended still being Taoiseach in August 2018, when it is hoped Pope Francis will visit Ireland for the first time.

On Tuesday, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern insisted Kenny has every right to remain Fine Gael leader as long as he likes, since he won the last election.

Click here to view full-size graphic
Click here to view full-size graphic

The week before, Kenny passed his first Budget as a two-term Taoiseach.

It's not been a bad month for Kenny.

Today's Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown opinion poll does not signal a second, or indeed third, coming for the Fine Gael leader.

But, similarly, it will not startle the Taoiseach or convince him it is time to sling his hook.

The good news for Kenny is that he remains the leader of the country's most popular political party with 29pc of the vote, albeit down one point.

If you add the Independent Alliance's 5pc on top of this, the Government is at 34pc, and this does not include whatever individual support there may be for Independent Ministers Denis Naughten and Katherine Zappone.

The state of the other parties remains relatively stagnant. Fianna Fail is up one to 27pc, Sinn Fein is unchanged at 20pc, Labour is up one to 8pc and Independents/others are down one to 15pc.

The only real movement in public support since the election is voters turning their backs on Independent candidates.

But the dispersion of those votes has been spread evenly among the three main parties of Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein.

Satisfaction with the Government overall is up three points to 31pc but this could not be considered a show of recognition from a thankful public after €1.2bn was dished out on Budget day.

Just one in four people believed they would be better off next year and half of respondents said they did not expect any change in their standard of living in 12 months' time.

The lack of a post-"give-away" Budget bounce for the Government could be explained by the fact spending and tax cuts were spread so thinly.

The jockeying for position between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael to take ownership of certain budgetary measures may have also caused confusion for voters and resulted in no real gains for any party.

For example, should the electorate thank Fianna Fail for the €5 pension hike and praise the Government for the various other social welfare increases?

Personal satisfaction with Kenny is up two points to 29pc and dissatisfaction is down four to 59pc, and, according to the poll, 68pc of Fine Gael voters are satisfied with the Taoiseach's performance.

Kenny will be worried that fewer than half of the members in his party (49pc) believe he should remain as Fine Gael leader. This is a five-point drop on the last poll.

But there were slight increases in the number of overall voters who said he should stay. and a drop in the number who believed he should go. It's a mixed bag.

The uninspiring Budget may not have done Kenny any massive favours but, similarly, it did him little harm.

The lack of any significant fallout or banana skin in the Budget has meant rebels have to keep their powder dry until at least after Christmas, or maybe even longer.

There is no appetite among the dissenters to dethrone Kenny in the medium term and today's poll will not convince them otherwise.

There have been talks about talks and some of the Taoiseach's critics believe the logical next step is to discuss bringing others on board, but they are cautious about being outwardly proactive in this regard.

However, the campaign to make Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar the next Fine Gael leader is well under way.

After a strong performance during his first Leaders' Questions in the Dail, Varadkar will be buoyed by today's findings.

He is still the public's favourite to replace Kenny at 28pc but, more importantly, almost two in five (39pc) Fine Gael members believed he should lead the party.

This compared to one-in-four (26pc) party members backing Housing Minister Simon Coveney for the job, and 12pc for Education Minister Richard Bruton, who was added to the survey for the first time.

Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald was not an option for participants to choose in this survey but she still intends challenging for the leadership once a vacancy arises.

Coveney is still Varadkar's main challenger and Fine Gael backbenchers said he had become noticeably more helpful in recent weeks.

He also offered to come to Fine Gael constituencies and host seminars on how budgetary measures on housing will work in practice.

This is a big move by Coveney, who is not generally seen as accessible to the average backbencher.

The silent war to replace Kenny at this stage must be white noise to the Taoiseach.

Instead, his time might be better spent focusing on his minority Government facilitating colleagues in Fianna Fail. Fianna Fail is trailing Fine Gael in public support but it is still by far the most transfer friendly of the main political parties. Almost one in four (39pc) ruled out ever voting for Fine Gael while just 13pc of Fine Gael voters said they would never vote for Fianna Fail.

Also, Micheal Martin is a far more popular political leader than Enda Kenny.

As things stand, Fianna Fail will not pull the plug on the Government. The party has not made any major gains in the poll since the election and Micheal Martin will know there is still no public appetite for an election.

Senior Fianna Fail figures believe the party, if Kenny stays in place and there is little movement in the polls, will see out its commitments under the terms of the confidence and supply agreement.

This means the most likely date for an election will be the last Friday in October 2018.

This would leave Fine Gael two months to replace Kenny if, as he suggested, he is still Taoiseach when the Pope arrives in August 2018.

However, it is highly unlikely that an increasingly anxious Varadkar and his supporters will be willing to wait this long.

But Kenny has moved from being an austerity Taoiseach to a leader who spends money and cuts taxes.

He got through the tough years of taking things away from people and is now enjoying his time giving something back.

Brexit will eventually have an impact but possibly not as bad as has been predicted in some quarters.

Either way, Kenny's feet are well and truly under the desk in the Taoiseach's office in Government Buildings and, as John Deasy predicted, he will have to be dragged out of there kicking and screaming if he ever leaves at all.

Sunday Independent

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