Taoiseach Brian Cowen: last December his public approval was rated at 14%

Leadership, how are you? He looked out on the nation and presented himself as the type of man who might inspire you to follow him to hell and back. He was confident, assured, passionate and fortified in the belief that he was there to serve with every fibre of his ability. For a little while there last Sunday evening, Brian Cowen had located the lost leader within him.

Announcing that he would remain on as Fianna Fáil leader, he laid out his priority. "The most important issue I have had to consider is what is in the best interests of the country at this time," he said. In other words, the country needed him, although opinion polls suggest that many would add, "like a hole in the head".

He had spent three days "consulting" his party colleagues about his qualities. He had been elevated to the leadership by acclaim less than three years ago, and now he was sheepishly asking backbenchers whether they thought he was up to the job. On balance, they concurred that the country and the party needed him. And once he decided he would stand and fight for the leadership, there was no doubt that for a few days at least, we'd get to see the best of Cowen.

So it turned out. For three days, he played a blinder. In media interviews both before and after Tuesday's vote of confidence by the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, Cowen came across as the kind of leader many once predicted he would be. Except, of course, it was all a mirage.

Appearances by this phantom have been made with great economy. Only when he's under threat, or when the party, as opposed to the country, calls on him, does this incarnation of Cowen manifest itself.

Last July, he put in an appearance at a parliamentary party meeting when there were rumblings about his leadership. He gave what was described as a "rousing" speech. One of his critics, Noel O'Flynn, expressed his reservations about Cowen, but that contribution was met with a "stony silence".

In November, in a draughty hall in Castlefin in Donegal, during the by-election campaign, he electrified an audience of 400 party faithful with a call to arms. The only journalist in the hall, Lise Hand, reported that the speech took flight. "This wasn't a speech from the neck up," she wrote. "His whole body practically levitated from the stage as he wrestled to express himself."

On that occasion, what particularly exercised him was an accusation from Eamon Gilmore that he was guilty of economic treason. The charge was grossly unfair, but it lit a fire within Cowen. Yet issues of far greater import to the nation have failed to elicit anything like that degree of passion.

There were a few other sightings. Most notably, in February 2009, he addressed the Dublin Chamber of Commerce in a speech that was greeted as if it represented the discovery of a leader who had been lost in the desert since assuming the top job the previous year.

The fleeting nature of these sightings of the lost leader were once grasped as a straw of hope that the real Brian Cowen was about to stand up. But no more. By last week, nobody really gave a fig that he was once again donning his Superman pyjamas for a brief run out.

Through his tenure, up until last Thursday, one thing had been clear. Cowen was a dab hand at the business of politics. Governing, in all its requirements, is another matter entirely. Maybe once upon a time, with a pliable media and subservient citizenry, his approach might have worked. Not now. Not in today's world.

His elevation in May 2008 was greeted in many quarters as a new beginning, a Taoiseach who would tell it like it is, a stand-up guy to replace slippery Bertie Ahern.

A closer look at Cowen's CV might have prompted second thoughts. He was a great man for sticking it to the other crowd in the Dáil. If the troops required rallying, there was no better boy. He wore his intelligence lightly and it shone through in his humour, his humanity. Everybody said he was great company, but what exactly had he done in politics?

Despite having served in six different portfolios, he had effectively risen without a trace. His service in high office had been at a time when the living was easy. Through the early '90s, as the economy was taking off, his stewardship of the portfolios of Energy, Transport and Labour were unremarkable and not encumbered with any great hassle. You could rely on his safe hands, but precious little dirt had gathered under his fingernails. Unlike, for instance, Ahern, in the portfolios of Labour and Finance in the late 1980s and early '90s, Cowen had not been called on to roll up the sleeves and put in the long, frustrating hours.

He was unhappy at the manner in which his mentor, Albert Reynolds, was shafted in 1994, but he settled down under the great conciliator Ahern.

Hard days beckoned with his appointment as health minister in 1997. However, he was through the gap in less than three years, leaving behind the minefield he dubbed "Angola". The foreign affairs brief was a piece of cake. He could master a brief easy enough and clink glasses with the best of them.

Then came Finance, in 2004, just as the bubble was getting bubblier. Here was the chance for him to show what he was worth. He wasn't working with a blank canvas. Ahern and Charlie McCreevy had perfected a system of using the exchequer as an election fighting fund, and feeding off the property bubble to cut taxes and pump up spending. Any fiddling with the formula would not have been tolerated.

This was evident prior to the 2007 party ardfheis. Cowen was reportedly unhappy at the exuberant promises Ahern intended to peddle at a time when dark clouds were gathering offshore. He made his displeasure known, but Ahern prevailed and went out to promise €4bn in tax cuts and an increase in the weekly pension to €300.

When Ahern's grubby money issues threatened to implode the party's campaign in the 2007 election, Cowen stepped in and took the reins with a steady hand. Power was under threat. His expected elevation to taoiseach was under threat. He was hell on wheels when it came to dispelling the threats.

When he was unanimously elected party leader the following year, he spoke of his pride.

"On a personal level, I am excited by the challenge, if somewhat daunted by the responsibility. That sense of responsibility is rooted in the history of the party and the achievements of its leaders. One of their number, Seán Lemass – a political giant in our cause – described most eloquently for me, what should be at the heart of politics. 'Personally, I believe that national progress of any kind depends on an upsurge of patriotism – a revival of patriotism if you will directed towards constructive purposes.'

"I remarked to my colleagues in the parliamentary party this morning that on this occasion it is incumbent on all of us to subscribe and rededicate ourselves to that political credo today."

Then he went and spoiled it all from the word go. Appointing his close ally Mary Coughlan as Tánaiste was perfectly acceptable. Handing her the important portfolio of Enterprise, Trade and Employment was not. She was ill-suited to the task, but her suitability was regarded by Cowen as less relevant than her loyalty. The economic portfolio was handed out as a goodie, rather than allocated to somebody who would make the best fist of it.

At the time, the surprise appointment of Brian Lenihan to Finance was seen as inspired. He was promoted ahead of the favourites, Dermot Ahern and Micheál Martin, and regarded as a very bright prospect. In retrospect, perhaps Cowen just saw him as less of a threat than the other two.

The messy business of governing beckoned. He was ill-equipped to tackle the tsunami about to wash across the country. He had sailed all the way to the leadership, never knowing hard days. And the baggage of having served in the engine room, when the arse was being blown out of the bubble, weighed heavy on him.

As a result, he was behind the curve at every juncture, trying to shake a lethargy that seemed to engulf him.

As finance minister he failed to rein in spending after the 2007 election, as his predecessor had cynically done in 2002. When the world began to tremble in the summer of 2008, he saw no reason to recall the Dáil. He had quite patently taken his eye off the crumbling foundations of Anglo. In the last days of August, he was to be found at the Fleadh Cheoil in Tullamore, belting out a rendition of 'Paddy's Shamrock Green Shore'.

Since then, his stock has continued to plummet. In November of that year, an Irish Times opinion poll had him at 26% satisfaction, half the level he enjoyed six months earlier on assuming office. Last month his rating was at 14%.

He dived into the blanket bank guarantee, at the behest of bankers who weren't imparting the full truth. Whether or not it was the rashness of that move, caution informed everything he did thereafter, at a time when speed was required.

Even for those who agreed with his policy choices, the slowness to act blighted every effort to raise the country from the mire. Maybe outside intervention would have been required irrespective of how decisively and swiftly he had acted throughout the preceding two years, but the general perception is that he bears major responsibility.

Last Saturday, Lorenzo Smaghi, a member of the European Central Bank's executive board told the Irish Times that Cowen and Lenihan had been asked several times last autumn to bring the budget forward to reassure the markets. But as usual, swift action was sacrificed in the name of caution.

And perception is where Cowen has been at his worst. His failure to properly communicate with those beyond his tribe, on occasions when he isn't personally under threat, has been his greatest failure.

In 1986, he summed up his approach to politics in a newspaper interview.

"Nothing great can be achieved in government or any area of life unless it is done with enthusiasm," he said. Precious few have seen any signs of enthusiasm in his efforts to bring the people with him over the past few years.

The lost leader disappeared back into his cave on Wednesday, having swatted away the threat to his leadership. He put in a giddy Dáil performance, and then instructed that a video of his performance be forwarded to supporters. It's not clear whether he wanted to reassure them that he was still top of the heap in mixing it in the Dáil, or whether he just wanted to show off his humorous quips.

The following day, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and it was down to his inability to appreciate the role of perception in modern politics.

The constitution was on his side. Procedure was on his side. What had perception got to do with it if he wanted to replace six cabinet ministers?

Once more, his focus was on the party, his own future, how best to freshen up the party ahead of the election. He couldn't see how it would be perceived beyond the tribe.

There was no appreciation of how it smelt of nakedly using high office in pursuit of electoral gain. He was out of touch with the people whom he had pledged to serve.

It was a sad, cynical swansong to a political career that once promised so much.