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Andrew Lynch: Enda must be backed or sacked - and quickly

Enda Kenny is living on borrowed time. With his party still reeling from the dramatic exit of George Lee, the Fine Gael leader has spent the last 48 hours conducting a damage limitation exercise both in front of the television cameras and behind closed doors.

Although he has probably done enough to save himself in the short term, he must realise that he is now just one bad opinion poll or stumbling media performance away from losing his job.

The one thing Kenny has going for him right now is that not a single FG TD has openly called for his resignation. As soon as anyone does, the floodgates will open and he will probably be gone within days. For the moment, however, the party is still gripped by the fear of going back to the bad old days when regular leadership heaves almost finished them off for good. As soon as Kenny put the phone down to Lee around midday on Monday, his PR campaign swung into action. The RTE man was to be depicted as a pampered prima donna, impossible to work with and probably never cut out for politics in the first place. As a line to hold the party together, this strategy has worked reasonably well -- but in the court of public opinion, it seems to have backfired.

In particular, Brian Hayes (who acted as Lee's campaign manager and is genuinely upset by the news) made a bad mistake by implying that money was a factor in the ex-TD's departure. Within an hour, Lee was all over the airwaves, displaying his mastery of figures by outlining the cushy expenses and pension package he has sacrificed by going back to Montrose.

The reality is that no matter how hard FG try to spin it, most people blame them rather than Lee for the abrupt end to his political career. If he really was temperamentally unsuited to life in Leinster House, that doesn't say a lot about the vetting skills of the party handlers who spent years courting him in the first place.

So how will this play out over the next few weeks? Simon Coveney, who along with Hayes is the most likely challenger to Richard Bruton in any early leadership contest, probably said a little more than he meant to when he warned Kenny of the "obvious consequences" unless his performance improves. While the party waits anxiously for the next round of opinion polls, the leader will be under intense scrutiny every time he opens his mouth -- and if those polls show a 5-point drop or more, all bets are off.

The only certainty at this stage is that FG cannot let this drag on much longer. They must either decide to back Kenny without reservation or sack him with the minimum of fuss.

Otherwise, they are facing into two more years of the worst-case scenario -- in which the FG leader is left in the humiliating position of being constantly mocked as Fianna Fail's secret weapon.


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