THE ability of politics to throw up surprises never ceases to amaze. The harshest budget since the early years of the state and somehow, inexplicably, it was Brian Cowen's week. Go figure, as the Americans might put it.
Without a shadow of a doubt, we are witnessing the final weeks of Cowen's time at the forefront of political life. But if the last three weeks are anything to go by, the Taoiseach is going to go out with a bang – or least banging a few heads – rather than the expected whimper.
He might not have been directly elected Taoiseach by the voters of the country, but Cowen seems pretty determined that only they will bring the curtain down on his tenure.
There have been previous occasions over the past couple of years when it seemed like Cowen was about to shake out of his lethargy and do what he did in the 2007 general election campaign. But they proved false dawns.
This time does seem to be different. It's difficult to keep count of the Taoiseach's recent barnstorming performances. But, strangely enough, they started at what must have been his lowest point in politics, the arrival of the EU/IMF bailout team.
The Taoiseach's performance in the Government Press Centre the night the bailout deal was announced was described privately by one senior opposition figure as "hugely impressive". As was his handling of the press conference announcing the government would press ahead with the budget after the Greens lost their nerve and called time on the coalition.
His rousing address to the troops in Donegal South-West on the eve of the by-election has also been heralded. But it was in the last few days, and last Wednesday in particular, that Cowen really made people sit up and take notice.
Following a good outing on the previous night's RTÉ news, he rounded on an out-of-sorts Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore during Leaders' Questions, accusing them of offering nothing but massive contradictions in their policy proposals. He then backed it up with a spirited defence of the budget and his track record in budget debate.
But it was the manner in which he handled two interviews, firstly with Seán O'Rourke on the News at One, and later with Prime Time's Miriam O'Callaghan, that really stirred up the Fianna Fáil faithful.
Cowen clearly set out for Montrose last Wednesday morning determined that he was going to meet fire with fire. Rightly or wrongly, the Taoiseach clearly feels he has had a raw deal from the national broadcaster and he was out to draw a line in the sand.
O'Rourke has a deserved reputation for being the toughest interviewer on the RTÉ payroll. The list of politicians who have wilted under the full O'Rourke treatment is a long one – Eamon Gilmore being the most recent example – but Cowen was up for the battle and didn't yield an inch. And, if anything, he was even more forceful and combative with Miriam O'Callaghan.
There was a similar thread through both interviews. The Taoiseach had enough of being told to apologise – which he claimed was something of an RTÉ editorial line – and of his "integrity being besmirched" and he demanded that opposition parties who level charges of economic treason against him be treated with the same rigour as he routinely faces.
Only time will tell how this approach will go down with the electorate. Given the public affection for O'Callaghan, accusing her of holding a "tabloid view" of the constitution may not go down well with middle Ireland.
But there is no question that the Fianna Fáil rank-and-file were thrilled at the return of the bruiser. One senior party figure told of receiving around a dozen texts as Prime Time was being broadcast on Wednesday night from Fianna Fáil activists saying: "This is what we want. We want to see that. We're in a fight. Joe Public may not have liked it but the base loved it." Another TD said it was the week when party canvassers – so crucial with a general election pending – were "picked up off the floor". It was the first time in a long time whey had something to cheer about.
Emboldened by his new 'take-no-nonsense' approach, Cowen went into the parliamentary party meeting and gave a considered, but firm, address. The message was clear: he was the leader and he wasn't putting up with anybody saying otherwise. The meeting, which was tipped by some to mark the beginning of a heave against Cowen, ended up endorsing his leadership of the party into the forthcoming election.
And just to complete the new 'have a go, if you think you're hard enough' attitude, Cowen surprisingly backed a motion put down at the parliamentary party meeting by Thomas Byrne and Michael McGrath calling for a vote in the Dáil on the bailout deal.
The Taoiseach said the debate would "once again give the opposition the opportunity to either come clean and recognise that this deal is essential and in the best interests of the country, or spell out their alternative".
The net result of it all was that the putative heave was over before it even began.
And the view among most Fianna Fáil deputies is that it is unlikely to be revived, unless of course the party continues to slide even further in the opinion polls.
Certainly, Cowen has buried the notion – bought into by a number of Fianna Fáil TDs – that he was planning to stand down after the budget. And now that he's come out fighting, it will be considerably harder to drum up the support, both in the backbenches and in the cabinet, for a move against the Taoiseach. As of now at least, it seems he will lead Fianna Fáil into the general election.
But for the moment the bigger questions surround what prompted the Taoiseach's new pugnacious approach and whether it will make any difference to his party's fortunes.
Talk to a dozen different Fianna Fáil deputies and you will get a dozen different explanations for the conversion on the road to Montrose but they are unanimous in one sentiment: "Why didn't he do it before now?"
Cowen seems like a man who has been freed of the shackles that were tying him down before. One theory doing the rounds is that with a general election now inevitable, Cowen no longer has to worry about holding the government together. All the time and energy he spent keeping the Greens and the likes of Mattie McGrath happy – "like minding mice at a crossroads", as one close observer put it last week – can now be fully transferred to the affairs of Fianna Fáil.
Another view is that the agreement of the EU/IMF bailout has "left him with nothing to lose". The worst has happened and at least there is no longer the concern about where the money to run the country next year is going to come from. With the four-year plan in place, he has something to stand over and defend and which the opposition has to offer an alternative to.
There is also a belief in some quarters that Cowen can really only motivate himself "when his backside is up against the wall", which it certainly has been for the past month.
The jostling for position in the succession stakes over the past couple of weeks may also have acted as a spur. Cowen puts a massive premium on loyalty and to hear some of his ministers talk, however tentatively, about their interest in being leader of Fianna Fáil would not have gone down well. If he was unhappy, it would explain the more centralised approach of recent weeks. Love Cowen or loathe him, there was little doubt in recent days as to who was running the show.
There are mixed views within Fianna Fáil on whether Brian Lenihan was putting out soundings about the leadership last week – some insist he was, albeit indirectly. But other TDs say they weren't canvassed on any level despite ample opportunities to do so. There is little doubt that Lenihan – as with other contenders – has been approached by unhappy TDs but those close to him are emphatic that he has done nothing to encourage or act on those contacts.
Rumours continue to circulate about the nature of the relationship between Cowen and Lenihan. The rumours may well be exaggerated but there is a feeling that Micheál Martin is now the anointed one, if not by Cowen himself then by those around the Taoiseach.
But that is for after the general election and there is some quiet confidence within Fianna Fáil that a reinvigorated Cowen can lift the party in the polls.
"The Taoiseach has put in three weeks of strong performances. I've never seen that before," one senior Fianna Fáil politician said. "I'm shocked he's kept it up but pleasantly shocked. Who would have thought that spirits would be higher at the end of budget week than it was starting it. We were downtrodden, now there is a relief that it's over but there's also a little pep in the step again".
This was backed up by a backbench TD who said: "I'd be very surprised if we don't improve in the polls. There's no way that we're really at 13%. We'll always be higher than that."
None of them are under any illusions that anything other than a hammering awaits them when the general election is held. But there is renewed confidence that if Cowen can maintain this level of performance – a big 'if' to be fair – then the damage can be reasonably limited and the party can return with between 40 and 50 TDs.
"If it comes to a leader's debate, he'll wipe the floor with Kenny and probably with Gilmore," was the brash assertion of one TD this weekend.
Perhaps. It is certainly possible that Cowen, in the kind of form he was in 2007, can somehow exploit the major differences between Fine Gael and Labour and limit the electoral fall-out by at least ensuring the Fianna Fáil base comes out and votes for the party.
But it is also possible that it will prove too little too late. No matter what Cowen does, the legacy of the banking crisis, the EU-IMF bailout and his own communication weaknesses may mean the Taoiseach will spend the next couple of months whistling against the wind – his message drowned out by a hostile electorate determined to visit revenge on him and Fianna Fáil.
We may not have to wait until a general election to gauge whether this will be the case. A couple of opinion polls, pending over the coming week, will tell a lot.
The psychological importance to Fianna Fáil of a rise of even a few points from the nadir of 13% cannot be overstated. Against that, if it doesn't come to pass – given the current volatility and Fianna Fáil TDs' terror at what may await them at the polls, the talk of Cowen, the renaissance man may quickly turn to 'yesterday's man'. But at least he's given himself a fighter's chance. It may be too early to say that Cowen's back, but Biffo certainly is.
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