Posted on behalf of Brian Walker
Five days in a very long time in Irish politics. After winning a party vote of confidence on Tuesday partly by insisting that the jobs of taoiseach to pass the bail out budget and party leader to fight the next election were inseparable, Brian Cowen duly separated them. He resigned as leader of the Fianna Fail party on Saturday. Why the volte face? Because he’d be humiliated by failing to make a cabinet reconstruction stick (see below). Normally such a failure would seal any prime minister’s fate. But these are not normal days in Leinster House. Passing the EU-IMF budget takes priority. Otherwise, the last few shreds of Cowen‘s credibility were destroyed, even as the man to lead Fianna Fail to defeat in the election he’d been forced to schedule for March 11.
But he may not yet have hit rock bottom. The opposition Fine Gael and Labour parties will move a vote of confidence against the government in the own parliamentary time on Wednesday, Cowen having defied convention by refusing government time. The Fianna Fail – Green party coalition hangs by the slender thread of two votes. They may be just enough.
Privately the opposition parties may well want the battered government to survive and take the hit at the polls for remaining in office to pass the desperately unpopular but broadly unavoidable budget. They also have problems of their own. Labour are bidding to overhaul Fine Gael as the larger of the two and their financial strategies diverge. A pre-election pact between them looks most unlikely, at least at this stage.
One crumb of comfort for Fianna Fail. Unlike the main British parties, no fancy franchise exists to elect the new leader. He or she (a female candidate is likely) will be elected by the parliamentary party, probably on Wednesday, the same day as the vote of confidence, even though precious few of them will survive to serve under the victor in the next Dail.