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Andrew Lynch: Cowen is just one opinion poll away from utter oblivion

Brian Cowen is now just one bad opinion poll away from political oblivion. Over the next few days, men and women with clipboards will quietly tour the country to ask the public for their reaction to Garglegate.

By the weekend, the results will be known -- and if they're half as bad as many Fianna Fail TDs fear, then we could have a new Taoiseach by the end of the month.

As the hangover from Cowen's infamous Morning Ireland interview continues, his colleagues are still frantically looking for a cure.

Even TDs who have been steadfastly loyal up to now are furious at the Taoiseach's behaviour and admit that he has probably passed the point of no return.

Successor

The problem is, there's no consensus on who should be his successor -- which means that a leadership heave would be a leap into the unknown that could end up making things even worse.

There are mixed signals coming from the Brian Lenihan camp, with the Minister for Finance insisting there is no vacancy yet, but also letting it be known that his health would not prevent him from taking on the top job. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Conor, has caused consternation with his admission that the party has been "very damaged" by the controversy and his hint that the leadership issue will have to be addressed.

Last week, Lenihan junior decided not to launch a book that contradicted Darwin's theory of evolution -- but it seems that in politics at least, he believes in the survival of the fittest.

The mechanics of a leadership challenge are fairly straightforward. Cowen's opponents need 18 TDs to sign a motion of no confidence in him, after which it would be a straight vote between the members of the FF parliamentary party. There is no doubt that at least that many backbenchers are prepared to vote against the Taoiseach -- but it appears they will not move until at least one alternative candidate is prepared to back them up in public.

If Brian Lenihan became that candidate, then it would be game over for Cowen.

While a bloodless coup would certainly be in FF's best interests, however, all the signs are that the Minister for Finance will not be given a clear run.

Micheal Martin, Mary Hanafin and Dermot Ahern would all throw their hats into the ring, guaranteeing a bitter four-way contest that could leave the party looking even more divided.

The attitude of the Greens could be crucial. Would they agree to serve under a new FF leader, or might they see this as the time to pull the plug and cause an early general election?

Over the weekend John Gormley seemed to indicate he would stay put, but nothing is certain at this stage.

Is there anything Cowen can do to save himself? The one slim hope for his supporters is that he might offer to address his communications problem by making the televised state of the nation address that's been rumoured for over two years.

Fighting

This might be too little, too late, but it surely makes sense for him to go down fighting -- as long as he made sure to get 10 hours sleep the night before, of course.

In short, everything is up for grabs right now. The only certainty is that all these issues will have to be resolved quickly, because with the financial markets in turmoil and a Budget due in December, the country can't allow this kind of uncertainty to last much longer.

With all eyes on the upcoming opinion polls, it seems that the public will ultimately get to decide Brian Cowen's fate -- and that's exactly how it should be.


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