SENIOR Fianna Fáil TDs are determined that Taoiseach Brian Cowen will not lead them into the likely spring election and say that a move against him will take place once the budget has been passed.
A "fractious" parliamentary party has been left "utterly disillusioned and demoralised" after one of the most seismic weeks in the state's history. The finger of blame is being pointed firmly at Cowen, who deputies say "is beyond repair in the eyes of the public".
A number of backbenchers and more senior figures – not from the dissident wing – told the Sunday Tribune that a leadership challenge would emerge after Christmas. Nothing will happen before then because of the need, in the national interest, to have the four-year budgetary plan and next month's budget passed, they said.
Mary Hanafin is emerging as the most popular option ahead of ministers Brian Lenihan, Dermot Ahern and Micheál Martin, who are usually mentioned in connection with the leadership.
One TD said that Cowen would be moved immediately "if the economic situation was not so serious. We cannot have a heave when the IMF is in town."
Another member of the parliamentary party wryly remarked: "It will be interesting when Cowen's popularity goes below the value of the yield on Irish government bonds."
There are serious doubts that any cabinet minister will publicly back a heave against Cowen and some TDs believe an election is too close to have a challenge. But a number of backbench TDs say there are easily enough of them to move a motion of confidence against the leader.
There is understood to be one well-regarded backbencher who has made it known he will be willing to act as a stalking horse if required and others said this weekend they would have "no compunction in telling Cowen it's time to move on".
Morale is at such a low ebb in the party that even Pat Rabbitte's outburst against minister Pat Carey on Thursday night's Prime Time did not prompt the usual Fianna Fáil circling of wagons. One senior party figure said: "There was very little Pat Rabbitte said that I could disagree with. We are diminished."
Another TD said, "When I saw [British chancellor] George Osborne on the TV talking about how Britain would be prepared to help, my blood went cold."
There is huge anger within Fianna Fáil at Cowen's handling of the imminent arrival of the IMF delegation last week. "We were spoofing and you can't spoof about this," said a senior party figure.
The latest Red C/Sunday Business Post opinion poll shows the party at just 17%. Fianna Fáil TDs and senators have reported being "chewed out of it" while others say they have been snubbed in the street in their constituencies.