FIANNA Fáil backbenchers are split right down the middle on whether Taoiseach Brian Cowen should continue in the role and lead the party into the next general election.
An extensive Sunday Tribune survey of the Fianna Fáil backbenchers on Friday and yesterday showed that half of them do not believe Cowen should remain as party leader before the country goes to the polls.
Of the 47 backbench TDs contacted, 30 (almost two-thirds) responded. Fifteen backed Cowen, but the same number said he was not the best person to lead Fianna Fáil into the next election.
Brian Lenihan, Micheál Martin, Dermot Ahern and to a lesser extent Mary Hanafin and Noel Dempsey were mentioned as alternatives. Many TDs said Lenihan would be the clear first choice were it not for his current health concerns.
The survey's finding confirms reports of considerable discontent and unrest in the parliamentary party in the wake of last week's widely criticised cabinet reshuffle.
TDs insist the rumblings are not confined to the "usual suspects" – the small rump of the parliamentary party who have been vocal in their criticism of Cowen's leadership for some time – and that "a new rump" of TDs traditionally loyal to the Taoiseach emerged last week.
Most TDs say privately that, on balance, the absence of a senior minister presenting himself as an alternative to Cowen should mean that there will not be a move against the Taoiseach.
Cowen still has his supporters. Meath TD Johnny Brady said: "We can't be changing the leadership like a yo-yo." Dublin North TD Daragh O'Brien praised the Taoiseach for taking the tough decisions.
But others said "things are happening" behind the scenes with TDs being privately sounded out. "It will be much clearer by the middle of the next week," was the assessment of one deputy. Another TD said "an awful lot of people are unhappy".
"People are just waiting to see what happens in the coming days. If one or two people with more credibility go public next week then there could be an avalanche," said one deputy. All of these TDs would previously have been seen as close to the leadership.
While the reshuffle brought matters to a head, it is the party's dire standings in the opinion polls that is really at the root of TDs' discontent.
There is further bad news for Fianna Fáil today in this regard with a new poll showing party support down three points to 24, leaving it 11 points behind Fine Gael.
There is a general belief among Fianna Fáil TDs that despite the sustained criticism over cuts in pay, reductions in social welfare payments and the hugely expensive recapitalisation of the banks, the government is "doing the right thing" by the country. TDs are willing to go out and defend these decisions. But there is enormous frustration at what they believe are avoidable mistakes being made by the government – the recent controversies over pay rises in Anglo Irish Bank and the decision to exempt senior civil servants from the pay cuts are cited as two examples.
And there is also anger that no action has been taken against TDs such as John McGuinness and Mattie McGrath who have been very public in their criticisms of the government.
While McGrath's very personalised criticism of Cowen as "lazy, lethargic and inept" was seen as over the top and hurtful by TDs, a number conceded that "the effort is not being put in". They said that while Cowen was on top of the big issues, there was a need for greater micromanagement given the difficult climate in which the government was operating.
The Taoiseach's communication skills were also highlighted by a number of deputies. "Brian Cowen is capable, but totally lacking in communication skills. His message is never put across in a simple crystal-clear manner. In his current mumbled, grumbled down-on-himself way, he is a problem... He has to show he is willing and able to do this job and give leadership," explained one backbencher.
In a separate criticism, the Taoiseach's decision not to drop any of his long-serving ministers was yesterday questioned by senior Fianna Fáil TD MJ Nolan, who said some of the cabinet had been there "too long".
One-third of the cabinet have been serving as senior ministers since 1997, and Nolan said ministers who had been in government for 10 or more years tended to become "flat" and "run out of enthusiasm" because these were "highly pressurised posts".
Citing the example of chief executives of major US companies, Nolan said they served an average tenure of less than six years for this reason. He said the most effective ministers in the current government – naming Eamon Ryan, Mary Hanafin, Brian Lenihan and Batt O'Keeffe – had been there two, three or four years.
The Taoiseach is facing into one of the most critical weeks of his political career. Along with the question marks hanging over his leadership, there will be major announcements on the future of the banking sector on Tuesday.