Less is more: Enda Kenny's public airwave appearances have been few and far between

FOR those arguing the case that Fine Gael is deliberately adopting a tactic of maintaining a low profile for its party leader – or to put it more bluntly, keeping him off the public airwaves – last Thursday week's Six-One news seemed to represent proof positive.

It was an extraordinary day in Leinster House. Taoiseach Brian Cowen had rowed back on his disastrous cabinet reshuffle. The election date had been set (albeit, it turned out, only for a few days) and questions were once again raised about Cowen's leadership.

One by one the party leaders – Cowen, Eamon Gilmore, John Gormley and Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Sinn Féin's Dáil leader) – presented themselves for interview on the main evening news, but when it came to Fine Gael's turn, it wasn't Enda Kenny facing into questioning from Bryan Dobson but finance spokesman Michael Noonan.

Two days later, when Cowen had resigned as Fianna Fáil leader, the same news bulletin featured a 'doorstep' interview with Kenny, where he said his party would move a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach if he didn't immediately call a general election. Once again it was Noonan doing the main studio interview with Bryan Dobson, where he held out the carrot that his party would suspend its confidence motion if a quick passage of the finance bill and an immediate dissolution of the Dáil could be guaranteed.

"If that isn't a strategy of keeping Kenny under wraps, then I don't what it is," was the verdict of one Labour party figure last week. One wag in Leinster House likened Kenny to the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel.

While that might be a serious exaggeration, there is no question that Kenny's role of late – whether by design or due to circumstances – has been largely limited to the Dáil, policy launches and brief doorstep interviews, rather than the big set-piece interviews.

Whether it is co-incidental or not, Fine Gael's poll ratings have lifted considerably in recent months, from the nadir in June, where it was behind Labour, to the point where nobody really doubts that they will be comfortably the biggest party in the next Dáil.

It's impossible to know what exactly is going on behind the scenes in any political party, but people around Leinster House are quick to talk up the significance of the appointment of Mark Mortell as an adviser to Fine Gael last October. This was just before Kenny's last major set piece interview – a pretty dire outing in early November on RTÉ radio's This Week programme, when he came across as less than assured on the detail of his party's public sector reform policy.

Rightly or wrongly, figures in the rival parties are adding up the arrival of Mortell – a respected and highly media savvy PR and marketing expert – and the more recent low public profile of Kenny and coming up with a definite strategy by the party to play to its strengths.

Which, in terms of public perception, do not include Kenny. Nobody can dispute his organisational skills. The Mayo man has brought Fine Gael from the point of oblivion to the cusp of its first general election victory in nearly 30 years. Kenny showed last June, during the failed heave against him, that he is a tough political operator, but his popularity ratings, though better, still lag behind those of his resurgent party.

However, suggestions of a strategy to keep their leader largely under wraps are rubbished within Fine Gael, both by those close to Kenny and those who opposed him last June.

They say the idea of keeping Kenny hidden away is ludicrous and simply would not wash during a general election campaign.

"The whole deliberate strategy thing is not really true," one senior source said. "It's just the way things have worked out in recent weeks. We're pushing the concept of a strong team and a policy-driven agenda – something we decided upon two years ago. We have very strong spokespeople and we believe that the business of government is very complex and requires a team approach. We're the only party who can offer that. Labour is putting Gilmore forward because it has very little else and Fianna Fáil are going to do the same with Martin because they have nothing else. That's just the way it is," he said, adding that Kenny would be engaging in a very active general election campaign.

The concept of Kenny as a chairman-type figure (as opposed to a chief) is something Fine Gael is keen to promote. Kenny is a leader, they say, comfortable in his own skin and secure enough to be able to delegate and give real responsibility to his front bench.

There is certainly truth in that. And it's a good job he is so self-assured, because there is no question that the key figure in Fine Gael's recent strong surge back ahead of Labour has been former leader Michael Noonan. His responsibilities seem to go way beyond that of a traditional finance spokesman. In fact, comparisons could be drawn with the role Brian Cowen played in the last general election, when he played a leadership role from the No 2 position.

It is Noonan who has been fronting up for Fine Gael in most of the big set-piece interviews and calling the shots on economic policy. However, the Limerick man has also been wily enough not to risk overexposure by in turn passing the baton at times to the likes of Leo Varadkar, Brian Hayes and Damien English. "It has been very effective," one senior Labour TD admits.

Many leaders might find it difficult to devolve influence and power in this manner, particularly to a former bitter political rival, but Kenny's goal is to become Taoiseach and, after nine years' hard slog, he is not going to let foolish pride get in the way. He is too smart a politician for that.

But, regardless of how effective it has proven in recent months, there are risks with Fine Gael's team-driven approach and these became acutely evident last week.

The strategy of a party managing a leader to play to his or her strengths and limit weaknesses is certainly not a new one. Ronald Reagan's presidential campaigns in 1980 and 1984 were classic examples. And though he wasn't leader at the time, the PDs sought to keep Michael McDowell off the public airwaves in the 1997 general election, because he was seen as too controversial (although it was the leader Mary Harney who gaffed with her proposal on the single mothers' allowance).

Fine Gael was careful between 1994 and 1997 not to over-expose John Bruton and the 'less is more' approach worked wonders, with Bruton becoming a very popular taoiseach. Some in Sinn Féin believe it's a tactic that they should be adopting with Gerry Adams.

However, the perception that a party is hiding its leader is something that, if it becomes a story in its own right, could potentially prove damaging. There were just the earliest concerns, from Fine Gael's point of view, that this perception might be taking hold in the wake of Kenny's poo-pooing of the notion of a three-way debate involving him, Micheál Martin and Eamon Gilmore.

On Friday morning, John Murray joked on his Radio One show that Kenny had been on the pitch less often than Robbie Keane (who hasn't started a Premiership game since October).

Kenny's stated preference for a five-way debate – also involving Sinn Féin and the Greens – caused some surprise in political circles, not least in the Labour Party, which is horrified by the notion of Gerry Adams muscling in on its patch.

"I was surprised Enda was so emphatic, instead of looking to buy time. The five-way debate thing is just bats. It's a ruse. They don't want a Taoiseach's debate. They feel they're streets ahead [and there is only downside to such a debate]," one senior Labour figure said.

Labour's frontbench spokes­man Ciaran Lynch referred to the Fine Gael leader as a 'non-playing captain' and the party's youth wing were even more direct, dressing one of its members up as a chicken.

Fianna Fáil couldn't disguise its glee with Kenny's response to Martin's debates proposal. "They're playing right into our hands," a delighted TD said.

But Fine Gael figures angrily dismiss the notion that their man is running scared. "There's almost no logic to a three-way debate. The leader of Fianna Fáil is no longer the Taoiseach and they are not a credible party anymore. Sinn Féin is the fastest-moving party at the moment and if any party needs to be sussed out [in a debate forum], it's them," a party source said.

The source said that Kenny hadn't actually ruled out a three-way debate but that they simply weren't going to dance to Micheál Martin's tune.

"Fianna Fáil's position is insufferably arrogant. Martin is worse than Cowen in terms of arrogance. We haven't heard one line from him on policy, or about reform, but we have this absurd, arrogant stupidity. This is old Fianna Fáil: they think they have a divine right to rule and that they can bully us [into a debate on their terms], well, like f**k they will. RTÉ need to stick to the principle that the debate is organised by way of agreement.

"Enda is certainly not afraid of a debate and there's no way that upstart Martin is going to slither out of the contribution he made to the mess this country is in with talk of debates that are purely about the future and with not one line of policy. They need to get real. They don't own the country anymore and RTÉ is not their private TV station. They need to wake up and smell the coffee," the source added.

Another senior Fine Gael deputy – who opposed Kenny in the leadership heave – said his leader was right to take the stand he took. "We're ahead, so why should we hand the advantage to anyone? I don't remember Tony Blair [in the 2001 UK election, when Labour was far ahead in the polls] conceding to a debate with William Hague."

He also dismissed the notion that Fine Gael might be nervous about Kenny's prospects against Martin, who would be seen as a better media performer. "There may have been that concern about Cowen and this idea that he would bash Kenny around the studio, but the view in the party is that Kenny and Martin are quite similar to each other."

However, it is difficult to believe that the bitter experience of the 2007 leaders' debate isn't weighing on the minds of Fine Gael strategists. As the RTÉ exit poll from that election confirmed, Bertie Ahern comfortably beat Kenny in that debate and few in politics doubt that it was a factor in swinging the election back in Fianna Fáil's favour.

That isn't going to happen this time around, regardless of how well Martin performs. Fine Gael will lead the next government, but as one Labour TD pointed out last week, the difference between Fine Gael being at 31% or 35% on election day could amount to 10 seats.

Fine Gael strategists will be more aware of that than anybody, so we can expect the party to continue "playing to its strengths" over the next four weeks. As will Fianna Fáil, which means that the next general election is likely to be fought with a leader of Fine Gael concentrating on the meet-and-greet on the hustings and in the main avoiding TV and radio studios, and a Fianna Fáil leader doing exactly the opposite.

The potential difficulty for Kenny is that whatever form the leaders' debates ultimately take, a three-way debate seems inevitable. Talk of an empty chair policy in the event of Kenny not agreeing to attend is fanciful – as much because of realpolitik as broadcasting regulations – but Fine Gael can't afford the notion to take hold that its leader is not up for the fight.