From top: Taoiseach Enda Kenny at yesterday’s National Day of Commemoration Ceremony, Kilmainham Hospital, Dublin; Derek Mooney
Enda Kenny may be not a great Taoiseach, but he does understand power politics and has a honed instinct for survival: particularly his own.
Derek Mooney writes:
“Don’t tell a man to go to Hell unless you can send him there.”
This basic rule of politics should be carved into the walls of Fine Gael’s fifth floor parliamentary party room, perhaps somewhere prominent where Deputy Brendan Griffin can see it.
The rule itself comes from no less a political master than President Lyndon B. Johnson and appeared as one of his ‘rules for life’ in a 1987 People magazine article.
The implications of the rule for Enda Kenny’s current travails are obvious enough.
While Fine Gael backbenchers can hope to see Enda Kenny quit as much as they want. They can even send one of their number on to Morning Ireland to say it but, until they have the means and the wherewithal to do the deed, then it doesn’t matter.
About 34 of the 50 Fine Gael TDs returned to the Dáil are now on the government payroll (i.e. as Ministers, Junior Ministers or Committee Chairs) and while not all of them are absolutely committed Kenny-ites; neither are they about to put their current sinecures at risk in an unsuccessful heave.
But while Enda Kenny is undoubtedly damaged by the events of the last few weeks – indeed, of the last few months – he is not ready to go just yet.
It is not his first time facing a leadership challenge. Questions about Kenny’s leadership that had been rumbling for years erupted into a full blown heave following an Irish Times poll published on June 12 showing Fine Gael in second place, 4% behind the Labour Party.
Yes, you read that right: in June 2010 an Ipsos MORI poll showed Labour as the most popular party with 32% support. What a different 6 years of Gilmore, Howlin, Burton, Quinn, Rabbitte and Kelly in government can make.
The Ipsos MORI poll numbers appeared on Friday night. By Monday Kenny had sacked Richard Bruton as Deputy Leader.
A day later ten of the nineteen members of his own frontbench had withdrawn support and were publicly questioning his leadership. None more devastatingly than Leo Varadkar who told RTÉ’s Prime-time:
“I have had to ask myself that key question, the 3am question, if we are in government and there is a national crisis, if there is a sovereign debt crisis for example and Patrick Honohan rings the Taoiseach and who do I want to answer that phone, I want Richard Bruton to answer that… The people are saying to us they don’t have confidence in Enda Kenny.”
Even with over half his frontbench and almost all his likely successors publicly lined up against him – Kenny won out.
While his challengers were making their way to TV3, Newstalk and RTÉ to tell everyone else why he had to go, he and his supporters were working the phones and digging out every contact they could find to put pressure on the people with the votes: the TDs, Senators and MEPs to stick with Enda.
Though Fine Gael never revealed the result of the secret ballot, most believe it was a tight squeeze, but a win counts as a win and Kenny, whose leadership was nearly ended in June 2010, continued on to become the first Fine Gael to be returned to a second term as Taoiseach.
Meanwhile five out of the ten frontbenchers who said in 2010 that they had no confidence in Enda Kenny, now serve around the Cabinet table with him: Fine Gael’s: Richard Bruton, Simon Coveney, Michael Creed and Leo Varadkar and the now independent Denis Naughten.
So, do these and other Fine Gael TDs believe today’s Enda Kenny is a better and more skilled leader than the 2010 one?
Possibly they do …or …just maybe, they perceive that Enda is not yet as weakened as he was back in 2010?
Though there are several candidates interested in succeeding Enda, there is no clear favourite. Most of them fall into the the successor category: someone not too critical of the outgoing leader and hopes to seamlessly take over from him with a minimum of fuss.
Arch-successors would include the likes of Simon Coveney, Frances Fitzgerald or even Paschal Donohoe or Simon Harris.
On the other end of the scale, Varadkar might reasonably be considered a challenger, someone who sees themselves as challenging the status quo and wanting to take the party in a different direction from their predecessor.
The successors will not strike out against Kenny, they will wait a little more until he is almost ready to go, while the challenger will not move and send out a stalking horse to take on Kenny until he is sure he has more votes than the successors.
It is this stalemate that will keep Enda and his Government drifting on its road to nowhere for a while more.
It will take more than statements from a handful of backbenchers to take Kenny out – the ground under Enda is undoubtedly shaky but it has not shifted… well not just yet.
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney