The fact that Cowen has pushed for a vote of confidence in his leadership would seem to indicate that he is secure that he has the numbers to win it. He has the advantage of having spent the previous three days canvassing support openly, whereas Micheál Martin was unable or unwilling to show his hand and campaign openly. Cowen also set the timing for any challenge, limiting the time Martin will be able to campaign. His refusal to accept Martin’s resignation makes him appear to be magnanimous. Cowen also has the advantage that the ultimate outcome of choosing to oust him is not clear. It’s not a clear choice of Martin taking over, as there will certainly be a leadership contest if Cowen were to go. This uncertainty might make the option of sticking with Cowen more attractive. Much might depend on whether the other potential challengers are indicating to their supporters to vote for Cowen or a change.
This would seem to suggest that Cowen is more secure.
However having the vote by secret ballot is a risky move. Can Cowen assume that people who assured him of their support will not defect in the comfort of anonymity? It’s very difficult to criticise someone to their face.
Also Cowen doesn’t have any way of forcing loyalty. Usually incumbent Taoisigh (or even like Enda Kenny would-be Taoisigh) can offer preferment in the future. Everyone knows that Cowen will only be Taoiseach for a few more months, and will step down after the election – he’s depending on genuine loyalty.
In addition all of these people are correctly very nervous for their seats. And nervousness can lead to desperation. Changing a leader might not help, but it could hardly do much harm.
Fianna Fáil looks closer to changing leader than at any time in the last two years since Brian Cowen’s leadership came under serious scrutiny. It would seem odd that they might do it at this stage when the party’s TDs know there is an election. The conventional wisdom holds that you can’t change leader so close to an election, especially when it would take about a week to remove him and another week to replace him. This would give the new leader little time between becoming leader and facing an official election campaign (the unofficial one is already under way).
Would it help Fianna Fáil to change leader? Political science suggests that leaders don’t really matter – there is very little evidence for their impact. This probably says more about the inadequacies of political science methods than it does about leaders. There does seem to be some evidence that Enda Kenny’s unpopularity in Dublin and other urban centres limits his party’s growth there. But it could be that young people in urban centres are more left wing and would never vote for Fine Gael, even if a young Dublin-based TD were leader. But assuming leaders do matter, could a new leader help?
One problem with a change is that it would create a difficult situation in the Dáil as the new leader would not be elected as Taoiseach – the Greens and the independents have already indicated that. Some see this as necessitating an immediate general election, which would presumably prevent the Finance Bill and most other legislation (22 Bills in total) the government had hoped to pass before the Dáil was dissolved from being passed.
But necessity is the mother of invention, so there is no reason why the government need fall if a new leader were elected. The new leader could concentrate on rebuilding the party in the month or so before a formal campaign, getting new policies in place and sorting out the candidate strategy and organisation. Fianna Fáil has had a problem that the cabinet has been so preoccupied with government that it has forgotten about the needs of its party.
There is a precedent for this. Richard Mulcahy was leader of Fine Gael when John A. Costello was Fine Gael Taoiseach in the post war inter-party governments. It is reasonably common in other countries that there is a party leader in government, a party leader in parliament and a leader of the party organisation.
All this assumes that Fianna Fáil is unpopular because Brian Cowen is unpopular. Brian Cowen had a brief but intense honeymoon. His recent unpopularity is surely related more to the direction the economy has taken than anything else. Perhaps even Bertie Ahern would have slumped in the polls?
But if Fianna Fáil were to choose someone, who should it choose? All serious contenders are just as associated with the policies that makes Fianna Fáil so unpopular. Imagine the Fine Gael posters quoting Brian Lenihan were he to become leader (‘cheapest bank bailout in the world’ etc., though I assume FF has collected a series of quotes from Richard Bruton and others about their lack of confidence in Enda Kenny). Micheál Martin has been in government for the last thirteen and a half years and so is constitutionally responsible for all those decisions. Perhaps Mary Hanafin could claim more distance, but she too has been in government since 2000 and sat at cabinet since 2002. All are to a greater or lesser extent ‘tainted’.
A leadership contest now would presumably rule out the self-styled ‘Ógra-generation’. This group would be able to distance the party from the government, but most of them are unknown and none have been tested in any serious way. It’s difficult to see how one could take over even after the election.
For a contest to take place signatures are needed from a quarter of sitting Fianna Fáil TDs. It might be easier to secure those signatures now that we’re in the dying days of the government, but would anyone really want to take the job now, and be associated with the impending electoral disaster? Some of the potential leaders might want to leave Cowen in place to maintain the possible myth that it’s all his fault and allow the new leader take over with a clean slate.
Given these points, it seems unlikely that a leadership change will happen.