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Andrew Lynch: Lenihan must display the fire which put Blair on top

"Everyone in every political party wants to be leader at some stage."

That was the key line from Brian Lenihan's RTE interview yesterday that must have sent a shiver down Brian Cowen's spine.

It may have been surrounded by the traditional declarations of loyalty, but to Fianna Fail insiders the message was clear -- the Finance Minister is giving serious consideration to a leadership coup before the next general election.

With a life-threatening cancer and the nightmare of Anglo Irish Bank to deal with, you might have thought that Lenihan had enough on his plate for now.

A brief clip of Cowen on the Nine O'Clock News last night, however, was a graphic reminder of why this issue just won't go away.

Slouching at the microphone with his hands in his pockets, the Taoiseach growled a few words about Anglo in a tone of voice that suggested he was fed up talking about the wretched thing -- underlining the widespread belief that if his face is on FF posters at the next election, the party will suffer the kind of meltdown that would consign it to opposition for a decade or more.

For the many FF TDs who are not willing to go down without a fight, this leaves only one option.

Any Finance Minister is automatically a leadership contender, since no fewer than six of them over the last 50 years have used it as a stepping stone to the Taoiseach's office.

Rivals

In Lenihan's case, his superb communication skills and steady handling of the economic crisis have enabled him to pull ahead of his most obvious rivals, Micheal Martin and Dermot Ahern.

A less-obvious contender, should Lenihan step back from the race, is Mary Hanafin. As a Dublin TD and a woman she would appeal to a broad base.

In a rare display of PR adroitness, Lenihan has even managed to turn pancreatic cancer into a political advantage.

The Minister won deserved praise last January for his dignified and courageous response to the news of his diagnosis.

Since then, he has said virtually nothing about it -- but his insistence yesterday that the disease has stabilised suggests that he certainly does not see his medical condition as a barrier to higher office.

So what's stopping him?

There is little time to lose, since the three outstanding by-elections will have to be held by next spring and the Government's Dail majority cannot last long after that.

Installing Lenihan as Taoiseach might not rescue FF from defeat, but it would at least make the next election some sort of contest -- and if Labour start to get cold feet about sharing power with Fine Gael, it could yet be a real game-changer.

Lenihan may well be worried about a repetition of the recent botched coup in FG, when Enda Kenny proved that even unpopular leaders are hard to remove without getting some blood on the walls.

In this case, however, even normally loyal FF TDs are so desperate that they feel anything has to be worth a try.

There is even a possibility that Cowen might step down without a contest, since he has never looked like a man who wanted this job in the first place.

In Tony Blair's new memoir, there is a vivid description of the dramatic day in 1994 when John Smith, his predecessor as Labour leader, died of a heart attack.

Ambitions

Meeting Peter Mandelson in the House of Commons that night, he made his ambitions absolutely clear.

"Peter," I said, putting a hand on each shoulder, "you know I love you, but this is mine... don't cross me over this. I know it and I will take it."

For better or worse, Blair's self-belief turned him into a national leader.

Brian Lenihan needs to show the same sense of destiny before it's too late. His party needs him -- and as far as many people are concerned, his country does too.


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