Phil Hogan: main man behind Kenny

"Watch Big Phil. He won't back the loser," was one Fine Gael TD's take on the leadership heave 24 hours before Thursday's crucial vote.

Carlow-Kilkenny TD Phil Hogan was instrumental in securing Enda Kenny's survival last week. On Wednesday afternoon, the media pack collectively peddled the line: "The momentum is with Richard." The basis for that assumption was that Charlie Flanagan and Kieran O'Donnell had publicly declared their support for Richard Bruton.

Bruton and his supporters marched onto the Leinster House plinth with a spring in their steps and did a media doorstep after 4pm on Wednesday. Safe in the knowledge that O'Donnell and Flanagan were on board, they seemed to be confident that they could overthrow Kenny the following day.

'Big Phil', a man who does not mince his words, had other plans. As groups of journalists talked about Bruton's "momentum", word came through that the Kenny camp was going to do a media doorstep too. But it would not be Kenny doing the talking. Instead it was 'Big Phil' who walked onto the plinth flanked by 20 members of the Kenny camp.

At a time when the odds appeared to be stacking against Kenny, Hogan expressed confidence in the leader and said: "We want to make sure there will be a decisive majority to strengthen his position."

He said he was disappointed at Bruton's unwillingness to serve in a new front bench and appealed to all of those opposed to Kenny to make themselves available to serve the party. Within hours, Fergus O'Dowd and Simon Coveney had both said that they would be willing to serve on a Kenny -led frontbench.

A former Fine Gael TD, who is not close to Hogan, said: "I don't want to be talking him up but Big Phil was the main man behind Kenny. The decision to get the group out on the plinth on Wednesday evening was a masterstroke."

But others say Hogan's media performance was only a "sideshow". The real work was going on behind the scenes and this is where Hogan came into his own.

"Big Phil looked after the TDs and Paddy Burke looked after the senators. They had their numbers done from early on," said a Fine Gael TD.

Hogan has connections in "the deepest bowels of Fine Gael" that people in the Bruton camp simply could not match.

"He would have connections with all the councillors in the country. He was contacting them and asking them to lobby their local TDs and senators to vote for Enda," a Fine Gael senator said.

Kenny also outmanoeuvred Bruton on a number of occasions and Hogan is said to have been instrumental in advising Kenny in this strategy.

"I'd say Big Phil wasn't too far from the strategy of sacking Richard. He would have been by Enda's side after he did to offer him support and tell him he did the right thing," said the senator.

The senator also believes that Hogan may have advised Kenny to walk out of his meeting with the frontbench TDs on Tuesday morning before they had a chance to attack him. "Phil would have advised Enda to do that. It was not like Enda as he is someone who engages with people and hears them out."

Another TD, a member of the Bruton camp, said: "Phil is only thinking of his own ministerial ambitions by backing Enda. He sees Enda as his meal ticket to a ministry."

Hogan's name has been mooted as a likely replacement for Bruton as Kenny's new deputy leader. Others feel that he is "too divisive a character" to hold that role.

It was said last week that the front-bench members who backed Bruton had gambled the keys to their "ministerial Mercs". Even Hogan's detractors must admit that by refusing to gamble his keys, 'Big Phil' is better poised than most for a cabinet ministry.