Can Enda Kenny continue as leader?
Does Fine Gael need a change in leadership to hope to lead the next government? No, but it might still be a good idea.
Whether or not Richard Bruton decides to challenge Enda Kenny’s leadership of the party at the parliamentary party, Fine Gael has the policies at hand to convince people that we should lead government. We will win based on policies, such as NewEra, which should be sold for what it is, a plan to improve our competitiveness by introducing a business orientation to the provision of services like broadband, water and energy, or NewPolitics, which will reduce the scale of our government institutions while increasing accountability and accessibility. We should convince people on the basis of the positions we have taken over the years, whether in opposing elements of social partnership like benchmarking, or in the past two years, taking a case-by-case rather than a populist approach to government actions. Here Fine Gael should be seen favourably against Labour. Fine Gael supported the guarantee of bank deposits, but while opposing that bailout of bondholders. Fine Gael supported the Croke Park deal with the trade union leaders, something Eamon Gilmore and the Labour Party couldn’t take a stand on until Jack O’Connor had given the word that it had SIPTU support.
As I have written before, Enda Kenny has been a very good leader in electoral terms. At the 2002 general, when the party fell to 31 seats, some commentators spoke of a continual demise in the party’s fortunes. Within two years of Kenny’s leadership, the party had bested Fianna Fáil for the first time, beating them at the European elections in 2004. He led the party to 51 seats in 2007 and then Fine Gael became the largest party at a local level in 2009. This is an incredible record for his eight years of leadership to date.
But even after all that, Enda Kenny might not be the best man to lead the party into the next election. We are facing a contest primarily between Fine Gael and Labour, and Labour have gained ground. Even if we can win some of this back, to find ourselves ahead of Labour again, the ratio in seats between the two parties after the next election will be crucial. In ways, by their commitment to many of the elements of social partnership through their trade union links, Labour is simply proposing more of the same. It is important for the country that Fine Gael has a very clear advantage over Labour.
It is unfortunate to say it, but despite his good work internally, in bringing many good candidates into the party and forward to electoral success, Enda Kenny is not popular nationally, and particularly in Dublin. He is not disliked, many simply do not see him as an alternative Taoiseach. We have to be realistic and wonder how much of the fortune the party has had in the polls was due to our own people and policies, and how much was because we were seen as the most likely alternative to Fianna Fáil.
This is not just about Friday’s Irish Times/MRBI poll, or the last Sunday Times/Red C poll, which showed the party stagnating in support. There have been internal mutterings about Kenny’s leadership for a while, reflecting large sections of the general public. These rose to prominence after the resignation of George Lee, but no one in the parliamentary party wanted to give him credit for deciding the fate of the party leader.
I do believe the party would be stronger nationally led by Richard Bruton, provided the parliamentary party gets behind him fully were he to succeed Enda Kenny. He does command confidence and respect, of a sort which the Irish people now desire. This should not be seen as a sign of internal division and rancour, as the party has successfully avoided since 2002, but rather as our best strategic decision when facing one of the most important elections for the country in recent decades. In all likelihood that before the next election, there will be a three-way leadership debate. Richard Bruton would be seen as a fresh face, and his command of economics would be reassuring in that event. The parliamentary party have to face this action head on, and not let it linger. Even if Enda Kenny were to come out of this continuing as leader, it would put the matter publicly behind the party.
One way or other, this needs to be resolved this week, resolved decisively and put to rest. And most importantly, we can’t let this lead to continuing divisions in the front bench into different camps after this week.