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Has Enda become a lame duck Taoiseach?

Analysis: Having been forced to clarify matters at the weekend, has the Taoiseach damaged his political prospects?

Guinness owner's new brewery opened Source: Niall Carson

PAUL KEHOE IS one of Enda Kenny’s most loyal and trusted lieutenants.

As government chief whip he’s in charge of ensuring that Fine Gael TDs vote the way they should and don’t step out of line. In 2010, he and Phil Hogan were instrumental in seeing off efforts to overthrow Kenny. He is a key ally of the party leader.

But the Wexford TD dropped his boss in it big style exactly a week ago.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Kehoe said that not only would the Taoiseach fight the next election in around six months time but he would lead his party into the election after that, saying:

I believe Enda Kenny, if he is returned as Taoiseach after the next general election, will serve another five years and more.

This raised the prospect of Kenny serving as Taoiseach for a decade, as Fine Gael leader for nearly two decades and being a TD for well over 45 years.

It also made a lot of people in Fine Gael deeply uncomfortable as well as reportedly angering Kenny himself.

The Taoiseach was said to have been pretty unhappy that his chief whip had made such remarks at a time when the lack of news elsewhere meant they would generate a lot of chat in the quiet political bubble.

Irish Government cabinet reshuffle Paul Kehoe Source: Brian Lawless/PA Archive/PA Images

Suddenly Kenny’s future as leader of Fine Gael and the country was the talk of the town when everyone in government would rather it wasn’t.

Kehoe was definitely expressing a personal view. But the problem is it displayed a sort of arrogance that does not suit this government well and for which it has been criticised in the past.

He assumed a lot in his remarks, not least that Fine Gael will be returned to power at the next election. However, on current polls it’s reasonable to say that the party has a good a chance of being part of the next coalition, with Kenny leading it.

In an interview with this website in March, Kenny said he “would of course” serve a full second term as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach if re-elected.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

But in an attempt to defuse the considerable storm caused by Kehoe’s comments last week, Kenny was a bit more nuanced last Sunday.

He said that his chief whip had used “a lot of poetic licence” in his statement and added:

It would be very arrogant and presumptuous of any public representative to assume that they can be elected to anything, myself included, until the people vote. I have no intention of staying beyond the remit of the next Government to be Taoiseach.

The reality is that many within Fine Gael now believe Kenny will not serve a full second term. A few things work against the Taoiseach: he is 64 and not getting any younger, he has led Fine Gael for well over a decade, and he is not that popular amongst the electorate.

Indeed, the Irish Independent reported on Sunday that senior government sources believe that Kenny, if re-elected, would step down in 2018 once “full employment” – or 2.1 million people at work  - is achieved.

This way he could leave on a high and handover to a fresh leader to take the party into the next election. He could even have a tilt at the Áras, although he has previously denied any interest in that.

A full second term or not, what the last week has done has put Enda Kenny’s political future on the agenda at a time when the government could do without such talk especially when the quiet summer season means there isn’t much else to talk about.

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It also raises the very real prospect that if and when he is re-elected Kenny will spend much of his second term being asked about when he intends to step down.

BRITAIN BLAIR RESIGNATION Tony Blair Source: Associated Press

We’ve seen this before.

Prior to his resignation in June 2007 – albeit in different circumstances with Gordon Brown breathing down his neck and the unpopular Iraq War – British prime minister Tony Blair came under huge pressure to name a date for his departure.

In the end he outlined his intention to resign nearly a year before he did so, saying in September 2006 that he would be gone by mid-September 2007. He effectively became a “lame duck” premier before handing over to Brown in June of that year.

The certainty with which Kenny has now put on his own political career and the widespread belief in political circles that he will go before the end of the next term – if re-elected – means to some extent he may also have put himself in “lame duck” territory.

Opinion polls show that his own popularity isn’t great and there are plenty of potential successors waiting in the wings, making no secret of their future ambitions.

If Fine Gael is returned to government and Enda Kenny leads that government, it’s a certainty that the likes of Frances Fitzgerald, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney will be repeatedly quizzed about their ambitions just as Kenny will be asked about when he plans to go.

All of which provides an unwelcome distraction that was unhelpfully created by a loose-lipped lieutenant.

Last week: When is Enda Kenny going to step down?

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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