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Andrew Lynch: FF bottled it, but they can still save the party - by ticking the right box

FIANNA Fail have bottled it.

If just a few more TDs had told Brian Cowen over the weekend that he had to quit, they would now be into a leadership contest that might offer the party some chance of a fresh start.

Instead, everything will be decided at tomorrow's parliamentary party meeting showdown -- and with Micheal Martin hitting the ground stumbling, the odds are that this Taoiseach is going nowhere just yet.

Cowen may be spectacularly useless at communicating with the public, but his marathon consultation process suggests that he still knows how to talk to his own colleagues.


The Taoiseach seems utterly confident that out of the 71 votes eligible to be cast tomorrow, he has at least 45 in the bag.

That leaves him with a decent margin of error -- and since the result will be kept secret, even a victory of one would be enough.

By throwing down the gauntlet in such an aggressive manner, Cowen has seized the initiative that will be all-important in such a short campaign.

He has also been helped by his leadership rivals' abject failure to show the same kind of hunger for his job.

Although tomorrow's vote is officially a motion of confidence, in reality it's all about Brian versus Micheal -- which is why Martin has chosen the worst moment possible to start acting like a wimp.

With a general election just a few weeks away, Martin may have assumed that it really doesn't matter very much whether or not he leaves the Cabinet. What he's failed to realise is that by offering his resignation and then not following it through, he has confirmed every FF TD's worst fears about him.

As one of them crudely put it to this journalist: "He looks the part, but I'm not sure he has the b****." And that may be the biggest reason of all why the Taoiseach survives tomorrow.

Ironically, the ongoing Anglo Irish revelations may end up helping Cowen as well.

He has told TDs that if they push him out, he will go down in history as the Taoiseach who was forced to resign over a game of golf with Seanie FitzPatrick.

In other words, he would be the fourth FF leader in a row to be brought down by scandal -- and for a party that's sick and tired of being called corrupt, that's a strong argument for keeping the status quo.

Of course, this election could have a few twists and turns left in it yet.

The voting is by secret ballot, which gives some TDs the chance to express in private what they lack the guts to say in public. Martin is gambling everything on a 24-hour PR blitz, hoping that he can persuade around 10 of Cowen's supporters to stab their man in the back.

The irony is that Cowen is actually much friendlier with Martin than he is with either Brian Lenihan or Mary Hanafin, the two other pretenders to his throne.

If the Taoiseach had resigned last Thursday, which at one point looked certain, he would probably have backed the Cork Choirboy as his successor.

When the two men say they are fighting each other more in sorrow than in anger, they are actually telling the truth.

The argument for keeping Cowen is that the general election is a lost cause anyway, which means he might as well take the beating and hand over to a new leader untainted by failure.


The argument for dumping him is that a fresh face could win those few extra seats that would make FF a credible opposition in the next Dail.

It's a tough decision, but it can't be dodged any longer -- because right now, the party looks like a shambolic outfit more obsessed with its own future than the country's problems.

Cowen is still standing, but tomorrow everything will be in the balance.

When FF TDs receive their ballot papers, they will have one last chance to do what they should have done at least six months ago.

They need to have a good long think before deciding which box to tick -- because if they bottle it once again, there may not be much of a party left for anyone to lead by the summer.