Prime Time, RTE, the night of the budget. In one corner, Brian Lenihan, the heir apparent who once was known as the smartest boy in the House. In the other, Michael Noonan, an old bruiser, taken out and brushed down because Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton had fallen out over the top job.

Noonan was in rare form, battering the finance minister around the place. Where was the "political proofing" of the budget? A few cents could have been added onto excise duty instead of crippling carers and people with disabilities . At times, Lenihan appeared like a boxer hugging the ropes, wanting it all to end. It wasn't meant to be like this.

Over the previous 12 months he had dealt with more, personally and politically, than any of his counterparts will ever have to in a lifetime. He had come through it all, and was perhaps on the brink of succeeding Brian Cowen as leader. Now, he was getting slapped about the place by his opposite number, and Cowen himself was taking on the character of a Biffo reborn. It wasn't meant to be like this.

It was all so different a year ago nearly to the night. On 9 December 2009, Lenihan delivered a very tough budget, taking €4bn out of the economy. But, he assured us, the worst was over. From here on, it was up all the way.

"Our plan is working," he said in his budget speech. "We have turned a corner."

He had been retailing this line for some time. The previous February, Lenihan told backbenchers that as Ireland was the "first country to go into recession, we will be the first country to get out of it as well. That's the ambition I have set myself."

Coming from Lenihan, it sounded plausible. For despite the standing of his party in the polls – a then historic low of 23% in December 2009 – many among the public retained a high regard for the finance minister. He talked a great game, and it was presumed that he was playing a great game. With Brian Cowen either unable or unwilling to communicate with the public, Lenihan's skills in this area were seen in an even better light.

Equally, his defence of unpopular measures such as the establishment of Nama saw him availing of the advocacy skills he possessed as a senior counsel. Making a silk purse from a sow's ear was part of his stock in trade. Some believed it was only a matter of time before he stepped up and shoved a lethargic Cowen aside.

Eight days after that budget, Lenihan received shattering news. He had been experiencing stomach pains, and in the week after the budget he developed a bout of jaundice. The check-up delivered terrible tidings. He had pancreatic cancer, a particularly virulent form of the disease. The trauma and shock that visited his home can only be guessed at. He was in the prime of life, 50 years of age, and apparently getting to grips with the financial woes of the country.

The news broke into the public domain in questionable circumstances on St Stephen's Day. There followed a genuine outpouring of support from all quarters. The level of personal support he received led some commentators to suggest that a general election at that time would have meant more than a handful of extra seats for beleaguered Fianna Fáil.

Such was his standing that he rode through the first serious controversy of the new year. It emerged that over the holiday period, he had reversed the public service pay cut introduced in December's budget for high-ranking officials. In doing so, he fed into the widespread belief that there was one law for the élite and another for everybody else. He and other ministers robustly defended the move, but it didn't wash with the public. Yet, despite this, he retained a high degree of admiration from the public.

Abroad, his stock was even higher. It was reported that he was sought out by his European counterparts in the margins of EU finance ministers' meetings for counsel on how to best introduce austerity programmes.

The foreign media, including a number of German publications, The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, all heaped praise on him.

Over the following months, however, the tide began to turn. As the focus of international markets turned once more to Irish banks, the guarantee of September 2008 came back into focus. The real implications of the move were being crystallised, and accursed markets didn't like what was emerging.

Angela Merkel turned the heat up with her perfectly reasonable – if badly timed – remarks that the bondholders must be singed a little, to say the least. From then on, the spectre of the IMF loomed large. Lenihan's Teflon coating was getting a bit scratched.

The week of denials was the low point for Lenihan's relationship with the Irish electorate. On Friday, 12 November, officials from the European Central Bank were in contact with Department of Finance personnel. The message was clear. Cometh the bail-out.

The following day, Lenihan denied that any discussions had taken place. "The sovereign is well-funded," he said. Cowen's denials received greater attention, and afterwards both men claimed that the denials were part of a strategy to ensure that Ireland got the best deal. Yet, much of the public merely saw a government at sea, not sure what was going on, and not interested in levelling with the public.

"He has taken a fair battering with the IMF stuff," a party source says. "But I don't know if he could have handled it any better under the circumstances."

In last week's budget speech, Lenihan gave the clearest indication that he was distancing himself from his leader and predecessor.

"Excessive public spending on back of the enviable but transient taxes of the boom added to the overheating of the economy… more should have been done to counter imbalances in our economy," he said. The implication was hardly missed by Cowen.

There was a feeling abroad that Lenihan would strike immediately after the budget was passed. The iron was hot with a general election just a few months away.

On budget day, Lenihan's aunt, Mary O'Rourke, made it plain that she believed Cowen might be best served spending more time with his family. The same day, Lenihan confirmed unequivocally for the first time that he will seek re-election, despite his health issue.

However, the hour has passed. Cowen is going nowhere. And the smart money says that Cowen's decision to hang on has dealt a blow to Lenihan's ambitions. A change of leadership after the election will probably favour Micheál Martin. Fianna Fáil will be looking for an Enda Kenny, somebody to energise, if not electrify, the party. The smartest boy in the class is not necessarily the best one for touring the rubber chicken circuit, suffering fools gladly, and rallying all comers to the standard.

The nature of Irish politics is such that Fianna Fáil's new leaders will have to be less concerned with robust performances in the Dáil, or formulating detailed policy, and more focused on trotting out siege mentality rhetoric for the foot soldiers the country over.

Only time and the votes of a depleted parliamentary party, will tell, but Lenihan may have missed the boat.