In May 1945 Winston Churchill seemed at the peak of his popularity. The British prime minister had emerged victorious from six years of global war and helped defeat Nazism. With approval ratings of more than 80 per cent, he was widely expected to lead the Conservatives to a handsome victory in that year’s general election.
As it transpired Churchill suffered a humiliating defeat, as the Labour Party under Clement Attlee swept to a landslide victory. Success in the war was trumped by Labour’s promises of free education and a national health service.
Enda Kenny is not Winston Churchill, and the recent global recession is not the second World War. But there are some parallels.
Ireland’s general election has caused anguish for Fine Gael and its leader (not to mention the even greater sense of dejection felt by the Labour Party).
Like Churchill in 1945, the Irish Government and, in particular, the larger Coalition party appeared to have all the aces going into the election. It had waved goodbye to the troika, had almost halved the numbers on the dole queues and had presided over growth that harked back to the days when the boom was “getting even more boomer”, as Bertie Ahern put it in 2006.
The last days before polling saw some indications of a Fianna Fáil swing and some inertia on the Fine Gael numbers. But almost nobody saw what was coming: Fine Gael barely clung on to 50 seats; Fianna Fáil crept within a single percentage point in terms of party support; the Dáil was hung; the Coalition was hung out to dry.
Soon even the most loyal Fine Gael spokespeople were admitting that this was a defeat. The disappointment was obvious, and, uncharacteristically, Enda Kenny seemed to bear a lot of it.
That was most evident in the Taoiseach’s first public engagement after the general election, when he attended the opening of a 1916 exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland. Looking tired and dejected, he described the contest as “bruising” and upsetting, primarily because so many of his colleagues had lost their seats.
“As the leader of the largest party and as the Taoiseach, it’s my responsibility to work to see that that process” – of forming a new government – “is put in place, and that includes the Fianna Fáil party,” he said.
His comments and downcast, downbeat appearance defined the quandary that Kenny was in, personally and politically. What he was facing was a large number of what the former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have described as unknown unknowns.
The electoral failure had cast doubt over Kenny’s role during the campaign. There were now questions about his leadership. A month previously he had looked likely to make history as the first Fine Gael leader to steer the party into a second successive term of government.
Suddenly his political primacy, unassailable since 2010, looked rocky. There were mutterings among some surviving TDs and more than muttering from others. The Galway West Deputy Sean Kyne called the result poor and said that some TDs had privately called it atrocious. There was also direct criticism from some of those who had lost out, such as Tom Barry, in Cork East.
Could Fine Gael form a government? Was Kenny the right leader to do it? And even if he were able to cobble some arrangement together, were his days numbered?
“Enda’s natural disposition is buoyant and positive and energetic,” says Frank Flannery, a former key strategist for Fine Gael. “He is a man of exceptional stamina.”
Still, says Flannery, “the political reality is psychologically bearing down on him. Nobody is immune from disappointment. It has meant he has suffered, and so have many of his colleagues.”
A bit doctrinaire
For Flannery there are obviously parallels between this election and the one in 1977, when an outgoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition was swamped by a Fianna Fáil tidal wave. “Fine Gael has never learnt to govern with the consent of the governed,” he admits. “We tend to be a bit doctrinaire.”
Initial reactions from colleagues to the election were grim. “Dead man walking” was the most common description, and many said that Kenny’s days were numbered.
That dispensation has changed gradually as TDs have mulled over the reality of this alien political situation. Bad as this election has been, it is not as bad as 2002, when Fine Gael under Michael Noonan was almost wiped out. Its 50 seats in 2016 is a weak result, but Fine Gael remains the biggest party and has the best chance of ending up in a government of some shape.
By the time the parliamentary party met on the Thursday after the election there was a more quiescent mood. Recriminations against Kenny were now few.
The remaining deputies had adjusted to some new realities. It was obvious that Kenny’s second term would come nowhere close to five years. (Colleagues estimate between six months and two years.) And if Fine Gael went into opposition Kenny himself would be out of the door immediately.
As the meeting wore on there was a growing realisation that no challenge would be made to the leadership. There are younger pretenders, but most felt this was not their time. They would also have been aware of the old saying, often associated with Michael Heseltine’s challenge to Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, that he who wields the dagger shall never wear the crown.
“He’s pretty secure,” a prominent Dublin TD says, “if only for a lack of a challenger and because of the precarious position the party is in.”
Another prominent rural Fine Gael TD, a rival to Kenny in the past, says the party leader is not a fool and knows he has not had a good election campaign.
“I actually don’t blame him. I blame the advisers. It was too Dublin 4. We did well in Dublin but badly elsewhere . . . There was no [Phil] Hogan, no [Michael] Ring and no [Frank] Flannery. I told him too we should have gone in November. We would have done much better then. We were like a football team that peaked too early.”
Asked about Kenny’s tenability, the deputy says he is secure for now, but his future is uncertain. Kenny could last “perhaps a year, perhaps more”. Nobody really has a clue, he says.
People close to the Taoiseach say he is of course disappointed with the result but that the apparent despondency of the immediate postelection days was in fact exhaustion, from a combination of a sapping campaign and a gruelling summit on Brexit in Brussels that involved overnight sessions.
By the middle of this week Kenny had recovered some of his natural brio. Independent TDs who met him said they were impressed with his level of engagement.
It was clear that his allies were also rowing in behind him. Michael Noonan made multiple references to early engagement with Fianna Fáil and the dangers of instability. The notion of a grand coalition or partnership was floated, and suddenly every second TD was talking of an equal division of cabinet portfolios and of the hitherto taboo notion of a rotating taoiseach.
It did not have full buy-in. Simon Coveney, for one, has expressed reservations about its workability. Sceptics in Fianna Fáil have described it as Noonan’s “save Enda” campaign, and the party seems to have dug in its heels on the coalition question.
But a Minister who is loyal to Kenny sees it as the only feasible option.
“Both parties are too small to govern on their own but too big to be in opposition on their own relative to the other. Whichever party went into opposition would have to form a Tallaght strategy. Would it be able to lock it in for a minimum period on a consent basis? I remain to be convinced that that is a plausible scenario for a minority government.”
For this Minister the mutuality of a partnership, although not free of risk, would be preferable. Kenny, he says, is the only politician capable of finding a way forward with Fianna Fáil. “He is the best at raw politics. He understands how to make deals. He is the only guy who is capable of pulling together a coalition . He has a skill set that nobody else has in the party.”
A key factor in many of the Fine Gael parliamentary party getting behind Kenny was an outside event. Shane Ross’s description of Kenny as a “political corpse” in the
Sunday Independent provoked an angry reaction within Fine Gael – especially given that it came from the leader of a group of TDs who were in talks with Fine Gael.
“If this guy thinks he can play a role in a government, with all the incredible difficulties involved, and then smear it in the Sunday Independent he has another thing coming,” says a Minister.
“The Ross comment solidified the parliamentary party behind Enda,” says another Minister.
Ross may have inadvertently done Enda Kenny a favour, putting him in a winner-takes-all position. If Fine Gael fails to form a government he will be gone. If the party forms some type of government, grand coalition or minority administration Kenny will be taoiseach for between six months and two years.
The opening day of the 32nd Dáil, on Thursday, was a strange one. Sure, there was the giddiness of new TDs, who had brought legions of supporters to Leinster House. But all the action was taking place outside, where the Healy-Raes put on a vaudeville act on Kildare Street. Inside there was a dull, insipid atmosphere, as if the air had been sucked out of a ball. The TDs dutifully climbed the steps to pass through the lobby divisions to vote on nominations for taoiseach. They were literally going through the motions.
Kenny showed little of his natural bonhomie and wore a grave expression as he sat listening to speeches. His own speech was serious, focusing on his responsibilities to from a government with like-minded parties or individuals.
Fine Gael’s bright idea of a grand coalition seemed to have taken a back seat. None of its TDs was willing to brief on the plan they had run with so strongly earlier in the week.
Even Kenny’s act of stepping down seemed to run counter to his style of personality and presentation. He resigned as Taoiseach at Áras an Uachtaráin under a shroud of secrecy. No photographs. No interviews.
Compared with a Fianna Fáíl brimming with confidence, Fine Gael finds itself confused, lacking in authority, and backfooted. It makes Kenny’s next move – and every one thinks it will be Fine Gael that will make the first contact with Fianna Fáil – all the more critical, not just for the party but also for his own political future.
Whatever the outcome, Frank Flannery believes that the “new leader of Fine Gael will have to come into being in the reasonably near future. That is critical for the next time, a new leader with a new dynamic, to help Fine Gael recover from this terrible shellacking.”
The loyal Minister accepts that Kenny’s second spell as taoiseach would be shortened. And there are wider dangers for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, he believes.
“Ireland has been well served by two strong centrist parties. If both parties come together there is a reasonable possibility that both will get smaller, which in turn undermines their ability to hold the middle ground in the future. That is the big question. How can they retain their identities?”
After a period of solemn rumination in 1945, Churchill bounced back to become an elder statesman. No such rosy future is visible for Enda Kenny yet. He could still make history by leading his party into a second successive term in government. But he will not lead it out.
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