THE door of the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting room in the LH2000 wing of Leinster House opened. John O'Mahony, the Mayo football manager and constituency colleague of Enda Kenny, emerged white-faced. He paused momentarily and then clenched both fists in a gesture of victory to the small group of Kenny supporters from Mayo who were standing nearby. They erupted with joy and ran out to the Dáil car park to break the news to the waiting crowd with shouts of "Up Mayo". Their man had prevailed.
The exuberance was in sharp contrast to the demeanour of the vanquished, who emerged blinking into the bright sunshine seemingly in a state of shock.
It wasn't supposed to have been like this. It shouldn't have been like this. Richard Bruton seemed to hold all the aces going into the leadership contest. He had the substance and credibility – particularly on the economy – that Kenny lacked. At his side were the majority of those hailed as the best and the brightest in Fine Gael – Brian Hayes, Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney, Kieran O'Donnell, Olivia Mitchell and Olwyn Enright to name but a few. And it was evident, and not just based on one poll as the Kenny camp claimed, that Fine Gael had stalled and that Kenny was failing to connect with the electorate as Eamon Gilmore racked up the opinion poll points.
Yet despite all that, when the votes were counted, it was Kenny and not Bruton who emerged victorious, even if the margin of victory was extremely narrow. How did Kenny do it or, perhaps more pertinently, how did Bruton fail to?
Once Bruton declared against Kenny, it was always going to take the leader playing at the top of his game and the pretender underperforming for the incumbent to hang on and that's exactly what happened.
Bruton was strong and decisive in making the decision last weekend that he was going to challenge Kenny. But after that, in a succession of media appearances, he simply did not perform. He came across as indecisive and unsuited to leadership, notably failing to demonstrate he would be superior in the job to Kenny and making gaffes such as when he allowed himself be pushed into saying that he would not serve under the Mayoman in the future.
In contrast, Kenny was strong and decisive. In public, he was both tough and conciliatory – sacking Bruton and heading off the front bench before they could ambush him, but showing his magnanimous side by promising the dissidents still had a place in his future plans. And in private, there was the same good-cop/bad-cop routine at play – his team tirelessly worked the numbers, making promises or, if necessary, reminding people of what they owed their leader.
Perception is everything in politics. And the Bruton camp failed to counter the perception that a) this was a grab for power and ministerial Mercs and b) that this was a contest between the boarding-school posh boys and the ordinary boys and girls who went to the local vocational school.
In fact, there is nothing about Richard Bruton that suggests he is power-hungry and those who backed him had little to gain (and a lot to lose) personally from doing so. The likes of Coveney, Hayes and Varadkar were guaranteed ministerial office if and when Kenny became Taoiseach. Although the Kenny camp believes that some of those involved had lost the run of themselves and got too big for their boots, the counterview is that they reluctantly acted because they felt that with Kenny as leader the party would underperform in the next general election, losing seats to Labour that Fine Gael should be winning.
Nor were they exclusively the products of private schools. Brian Hayes gets a big vote in working-class areas of his constituency, while the likes of Paschal Donohoe, Damien English, Olwyn Enright and Denis Naughten are as down-to-earth as you can get. If there was a divide between the two camps, it was a generational one. In so much as one can generalise – and there were a number of exceptions – 'Old' Fine Gael backed Kenny, 'New' Fine Gael went for Bruton. Yet, the Bruton camp failed to get that across.
They also seemed to think that securing a majority of the front bench would be sufficient to unseat Kenny and failed to woo enough backbenchers, not even approaching some until Wednesday. Not surprisingly, these TDs were less than flattered to be seen as unimportant until that point. The rebels also seemed to underestimate Kenny who, after eight years working his you-know-what off – as he told the front bench last week – was not going to walk away without a fight when 'asked' to do so by senior members of the front bench.
Questions also have to be asked as to why the Bruton camp failed to get the support of any of the MEPs and why almost all the professional senators – those who won't try for the Dáil next time around – went for Kenny even though he is committed to abolishing the Seanad. That suggests somebody hadn't done their homework.
Alternatively, some of the homework was a little too public. The optics of the meeting of Bruton supporters in the Green Isle Hotel on Tuesday morning were not good. "It was probably a silly thing to do. It made it all look quite conspiratorial," one pro-Bruton TD admits.
In contrast, Kenny's team got their tactics spot-on. They used the oldest trick in the anti-heave handbook, love-bombing the constituency running mates of those who had declared against Kenny. They worked the constituency grass root organisations to ensure TDs were onside. Despite the denials, it's clear that promises were made to TDs and senators about future advancement.
"We were probably too nice," conceded one Bruton supporter. "We didn't want to be too hard on Enda – because to be fair he had done a lot for the party. They were willing to get tough. They put pressure on people. They held nothing back."
The timing of the move was also a problem, coming in the same week as a motion of no-confidence put down by Kenny in the Taoiseach and on the back, it was claimed, of just one opinion poll. A number of TDs voted for Kenny because they simply felt it wasn't fair to move against him at this time. A few did so because they have a long-standing antipathy towards the Brutons dating back to John's time as leader. With the votes of just three parliamentary party members deciding the issue, such seemingly minor factors proved crucial.
Although people in the Kenny camp insist that this coup was a long time in planning, those on the other side say that, while discontent had been simmering for some time, it "wasn't planned but was purely down to Richard being asked on Prime Time about Enda's leadership".
While the Bruton camp believes the numbers were there for a period around Wednesday before Kenny's team went on the counter attack, it's clear that the dissidents didn't have enough groundwork in place. Kenny obviously guessed as much and moved to bring matters to a head as quickly as possible.
His gamble paid off. It remains to be seen how damaged he is by the heave. Optimists in the party believe the leadership question is settled once and for all; that the wounds will heal quickly and that the public got to see Kenny's tough and decisive side. That, allied to a week of Fine Gael dominating the headlines, should ensure a bounce for the party in the next opinion poll, due next weekend, they believe.
However, the counterview is that the past week will inevitably leave scars within Fine Gael and damage the party in the eyes of the public. The barely contained glee of Fianna Fáil and Labour TDs at the way events transpired tells its own story. A "botched heave and a damaged leader" is the unsentimental assessment of former Fine Gael minister-turned-Newstalk broadcaster Ivan Yates – who was present for a number of leadership challenges during his time in the party. "My experience is that heavers don't go away. They go off and lick their wounds and they don't get mad, they get even. They never come back onside because there is no incentive for them to do so".
And questions remain as to whether Kenny, who undoubtedly rescued Fine Gael from oblivion, has brought the party as far as he can. Even his supporters accept he has failed to connect with sizeable sections of the electorate, particularly in the east of the country. It's premature to say that those problems will now go away.
Perhaps the voters will be swayed by his undeniably impressive performance last week. But it is also possible that those outside of the environs of Leinster House will be less interested in the nuances of party in-fighting or might even be repelled by it. And after eight years of being leader, is it realistic to expect that Kenny can now electrify the electorate?
Kenny also has a tricky balancing act in composing his new front bench. He simply can't afford to relegate all of those who backed Bruton, yet he also has to satisfy the demands of those who backed him to the hilt last week. It was noticeable in the run-up to the 2007 general election that the Fine Gael front bench lacked the experience to take on the heavyhitters in the Fianna Fáil cabinet. Kenny has to avoid that happening again by going with too green a shadow team, while also sending out a clear signal that there is a price to be paid for taking him on.
And there remains the possibility that the leadership issue could re-emerge, despite the widespread view on Thursday that the matter was now closed. At some point between now and next spring, the government will have to hold three by-elections and probably a Dublin mayoral contest. Labour looks likely to win the mayoral race and Dublin South. Fine Gael should win Waterford and has a decent chance in Donegal South-West, but if it failed to take either seat then the pressure on Kenny would be enormous, even if his main challenger has been severely damaged by the events of the past week.
But that's for the future. This weekend, Enda Kenny can reflect on a job well done. Seven days ago, this newspaper wrote that the week ahead was the most critical he faced as party leader. He has come through it, not unscathed but certainly with his reputation as a political streetfighter enhanced and by some clear distance the favourite to become the next Taoiseach. That will do for now.