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Andrew Lynch: When Bootboy Ahern starts praising him, it's time for Biffo to watch his back

If Brian Cowen feels a shiver today, it's because someone has just walked over his political grave.

As the momentum grows for a heave against the beleaguered Taoiseach, Dermot Ahern says that he's fully behind him but is unhappy with Fianna Fail's dire opinion poll ratings and suggests that everyone in the party needs to "up their game".

When a cabinet minister starts using such ambiguous language to praise his boss, you know that a leadership contest can't be too far off -- and when that minister is as scheming and ambitious as the "bootboy from Dundalk", the Taoiseach would be well advised to watch his back with extra care.



BACON

With just a couple of days to go before the Dail breaks up for the summer, Cowen's position is not under any immediate threat. At tonight's parliamentary party meeting, however, he is certain to get an earful from outraged backbenchers who are convinced that his lacklustre leadership will cost them their seats.

For a whole host of reasons, this government seems unlikely to last the pace until 2012 -- which means that for TDs who want a new face on their general election posters, it will soon be time to speak or forever hold their peace.

Cowen's weaknesses have been endlessly debated ever since he took over from Bertie Ahern, but ultimately it all boils down to the dreaded 'c word' -- communications. In the words of Sean Power, the former junior minister who told him a few home truths over bacon and eggs at Government Buildings last week, this Taoiseach apparently wants to govern as if the media didn't exist.

He has an irritating habit of completely disappearing from view at times of crisis -- and when he does grace the airwaves with his presence, his gruff demeanour and jargon-heavy answers often leave viewers feeling more alienated than ever.

Since the Taoiseach has gone past the point of no return as far as most voters are concerned, why are his colleagues hesitating to throw Captain Cowen overboard? The answer is that for the time being at least, they are rebels without a candidate. Nobody wants to become the FF equivalent of Richard Bruton, who destroyed his own leadership chances with his disastrous mishandling of last month's coup against Enda Kenny.

Dermot Ahern's sly comments suggest that if a vacancy arrives in the near future, his hat will be in the ring.

However, the Minister for Justice's lack of popularity with FF TDs means that for him to launch a leadership challenge would be a kamikaze mission.



BETS

Ahern will continue to drop some none-too-subtle hints about his long-term ambitions, but for now at least he and his cabinet rivals will stay officially loyal and hope that a group of backbenchers will eventually plunge the knife in for them.

As time goes by, this seems increasingly likely. The list of "usual suspects" is steadily growing, with up to 10 TDs and senators outside the party whip by Friday.

Brian Lenihan stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of public popularity, partly because of the courage he has shown in battling cancer and party because his communication skills are so impressive.

If the Minister for Finance receives good news from his doctors over the summer, all bets are off.


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