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How safe is Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader?

The latest poll puts Kenny as the most unpopular of the four main party leaders. So is his position safe?

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny
Image: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Updated 2.30pm

JOHN DEASY HAS never been a fan of Enda Kenny so no one was particularly surprised when the Fine Gael backbencher took a swipe at the Taoiseach in September.

The Waterford deputy said people in Fine Gael were “disgusted” with the way the party was being run, claiming any dissent was punished and that there is an atmosphere of total non-criticism within the party.

“If you don’t tow the line then you will be punished,” was Deasy’s assessment. Only Cavan-Monaghan deputy Seán Conlan, who feels he has been persecuted by the leadership, came out publicly to agree with Deasy.

But privately several party backbenchers agreed with what Deasy (below) said. They ranged from those who were part of the failed heave in 2010 to the ambitious, but slapped down, ‘five-a-side’ group of first-time deputies who have been scathing of the government’s lack of political reform.

These are all the usual awkward suspects who are not fans of Enda Kenny. They are in the minority in the Fine Gael party which is why right now the Taoiseach’s leadership is not under immediate threat.

Every now and then a few anti-Kenny elements within Fine Gael crunch the numbers and assess where each member of the parliamentary party stands on the leadership question. A recent analysis showed there would not be sufficient support to mount a successful heave.

JOHN DEASY FINE GAELS ALCOHOL ABUSE PLAN Source: Gareth Chaney/Photocall Ireland!

Safe. But for how long?

But how long that remains the case is now a big question being asked within Fine Gael following this morning’s Ipsos MRBI poll in the Irish Times which has frightened quite a few of those who occupy the party’s middle ground.

One party insider noted that a dozen backbench TDs are in Brussels to meet Phil Hogan and MEPs today. “I’d say Kenny’s glad [Paul] Kehoe went with them,” they said, referring to the Taoiseach’s fiercely loyal chief whip.

It also hasn’t gone unnoticed that Jim Daly, a first-time TD from Cork and normally a staunch defender of the government, has come out in the Irish Times today talking about a lack of political reform within Fine Gael.

The conventional wisdom amongst those who back Kenny, and even those on the fence, is that a leadership change would be politically disastrous and Fine Gael would still be finding its feet under a new leader come election time. There are also questions about who exactly would mount that challenge and be that new leader.

The usual names mentioned are ministers Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar but some believe that Coveney doesn’t have what it takes while Varadkar may be playing a longer game and wouldn’t be ready to go for the leadership. There is some consensus around Frances Fitzgerald (below) but she is fiercely loyal to Kenny and would be very unlikely to challenge him.

New Tusla Agency Source: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Fianna Fáil TDs now gleefully claim that Kenny is at Brian Cowen levels of unpopularity and the party believes that a strategy of painting Kenny as out of touch and deluded will appeal to voters.

Up and down the country they’re hearing it on the doorsteps that people really just don’t like the Taoiseach. Kenny is coming across it himself as he faces water protesters everywhere he goes.

Selling the recovery

The Taoiseach is consistently talking about the benefits of the economic recovery and of more tax cuts ahead. But right now lots of voters are struggling to keep their head above water and even with the changes are dreading their Irish Water bill landing next year.

A Fine Gael minister who is a big supporter of Kenny privately admitted to us this morning that the party is not effectively communicating its best selling point: the economic recovery.

We’re going around like robots talking about 70,000 jobs and falling bond yields. We need to be explaining how what we’ve done is going to positively affect ‘John and Mary’.

Both government parties hope that when people start to feel the benefit of the Budget tax changes in January of next year there will be an upswing in their support. But will that be enough?

If the polls don’t start heading in an upward direction for both coalition parties by February at the latest then there will be serious questions being asked about Kenny’s future as Fine Gael leader.

All of that is without even considering what possible implications there could be for Kenny from the publication of the interim report into the circumstances surrounding Martin Callinan’s departure as garda commissioner.

Negative findings against Kenny in that report, due early next year, combined with bad poll numbers could create a perfect storm and make his position untenable.

For now, Kenny is safe. But the coming months are crucial.

Read: Sinn Féin to table motion of no confidence in Enda Kenny

Read: Is Fine Gael facing an election bloodbath?

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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