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Andrew Lynch: Lenihan is playing a cute game, real fight will be after election

NO punch-ups in Leinster House. No intimidating late-night phone calls.

No sinister white vans spotted outside the challenger's house. This must be the politest leadership heave in the history of Fianna Fail -- because the party knows that no matter what the outcome tonight, it must reunite quickly in order to fight a general election in just a few weeks time.

If Brian Cowen wins the vote, as most people now expect, it will be a powerful tribute to his survival instincts.

According to insider accounts, a demoralised Taoiseach was on the brink of resigning last Thursday when the storm of controversy over his golf game with Seanie FitzPatrick had reached its height.


Once his advisers convinced him to fight on, however, he threw himself into the battle with gusto -- proving yet again that he's at his best when his own job is on the line.

The crucial turning point came on Sunday evening when Micheal Martin offered his resignation from the Cabinet but Cowen persuaded him not to go through with it.

With hindsight, this was a tactical blunder that the Minister for Foreign Affairs may regret for the rest of his life.

It confirmed TDs' fears that despite all his other good qualities, the Cork smoothie is a bit of a ditherer -- and lacks the ruthlessness that any politician needs to get to the very top.

Brian Lenihan's dramatic announcement that he will support Cowen could well be the final nail in Martin's coffin.

The Minister for Finance is playing a cute game, privately accepting that he has no chance of winning the leadership now but that everything could change after the forthcoming general election.

In private, Lenihan probably has a lower opinion of the Taoiseach than almost anyone else -- but, for now, playing the loyal deputy is his best chance to land the ultimate prize.

To put it bluntly, Martin's only hope at this stage is that some of Cowen's declared supporters are lying.

If there is a shock result tonight, then we will be into a whole new ball game. A full-scale leadership contest would be scheduled for early next week, with Martin enjoying a big head-start over both Lenihan and Mary Hanafin.

The more likely scenario is that tonight's vote is just a dress rehearsal for the contest that will take place as soon as FF has been dumped out of office.

Nobody can predict that one with any confidence. It could well be that the next FF leader is in their 30s and largely unknown to the public -- and if you fancy a flutter, then check out the odds on ambitious junior minister Dara Calleary.

For now, the only item on FF's agenda must be simple survival. As Cowen has shown over the past 48 hours, the party is at its most formidable when its raw hunger for power kicks in.

Right now it is deep in debt, low on morale and organisationally a shambles -- and these are problems that no leader can be expected to turn around in just a couple of months.

That's why, to many outside observers, today's leadership election looks suspiciously like a couple of bald men fighting over a comb.


It's certainly irrelevant to the 450,000 unemployed, who get the impression that the Taoiseach only comes to life when he's threatened with his own P45. A party that sees itself as a great national movement is dying on its feet -- and it can't start reconnecting with the public until it stops fighting with itself.

Brian Cowen first became famous in 1992 for a barnstorming FF ard-fheis speech about the Progressive Democrats, in which he declared, "If in doubt, leave them out". He must be hoping that his own TDs take a more forgiving attitude tonight.

This is the last chance they will get to turn the general election into something approaching a real contest -- and if they fluff it, they will have nobody to blame except themselves.