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And now the end is near, it's Biffo's final curtain

The end is very close now. By Monday evening at the latest, Brian Cowen must decide whether or not to lead Fianna Fail into an election that could destroy the party as well as himself.

At this late stage, it all boils down to one simple question -- how many FF TDs have the guts to tell him that he has to quit?

As the phone bill mounts in Government Buildings this weekend, Cowen's private conversations with colleagues will be the crucial factor in his decision.

He is adopting the same tactic as Margaret Thatcher in her final days, talking to people one-on-one in the hope that he can somehow win them over.

Instead, that consultation process broke the Iron Lady -- and there are signs today that exactly the same thing is happening to Biffo. The tragedy is that even after everything's that happened over the last couple of years, most FF TDs still like Cowen personally. They will privately tell you that they feel socially comfortable with him in a way they never did with Bertie Ahern. Despite all the fuss over his golf outing with Seanie FitzPatrick, they do not believe the Taoiseach did anything corrupt.

Even so, it looks as if the game is up. Cowen's total failure to communicate with the public, the ongoing Anglo Irish sleaze and last week's scary opinion poll putting FF on 14pc have all combined to create the perfect political storm.

The only reason he has survived is the cowardice of his leadership rivals, with Micheal Martin, Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin all scared to strike in case they end up accused of splitting the party.

If Cowen does resign this weekend, it will create an incredibly messy situation. He would remain as a caretaker Taoiseach, keeping a low profile while his successor gets on with the awesome task of fighting a General Election. Polling day would probably have to be brought forward, a disaster for the Greens who desperately want to pass a climate change bill before they go to the people.

Who would win a snap FF leadership election? Martin has established himself as the clear frontrunner, although his near-invisibility this week has raised question marks over whether the Cork Choirboy is really tough enough for the job.


Lenihan's chances have faded ever since the IMF came to town, but he will make a real fight of it since he knows this is probably his last chance. Hanafin would need a minor miracle now, since TDs are worried about the nightmare of the party leader losing her seat in Dun Laoghaire. Eamon O Cuiv has also hinted that he can rescue the party his grandfather founded 85 years ago -- but frankly, the idea of Dev Og as FF's saviour strikes most of his colleagues as a bad joke.

The instability that a change of leadership would cause is the one card that Cowen has left to play. A new face on the poster might look like a desperate tactic, but it's surely better than just standing still and waiting to be annihilated?

Should he stay or should he go? The grim reality for Brian Cowen is that as far as most people are concerned, it doesn't really matter any more. One way or another, he will be history in a few weeks time -- and if his colleagues don't put him out of his misery soon, the voters will be only too happy to do the job for them.