Cowen at the banking reports press conference last week

IF you live long enough you see everything in politics, but even so, an opinion poll showing Fianna Fáil at half the rating of the Labour Party takes some beating.

Few of the 100-plus weeks that Brian Cowen has endured since becoming Taoiseach have been easy. However, the one just gone must be among the worst. The week to come, with its confidence motion against the Taoiseach, is unlikely to be much better.

The two banking reports have left the Taoiseach with little wiggle room. A reckless fiscal policy was fingered as a central factor in the economic and banking crisis and there's simply no getting away from the fact that Cowen was finance minister for the key period. That will be used against the Taoiseach for the rest of his political career, especially in the next general election.

The reports endorse the view that, since taking over from Bertie Ahern, Cowen's government has generally done the right things in relation to banking and budgetary policy. But the electorate doesn't seem too interested in that. It is the grimmest of ironies that Fianna Fáil was attracting 42% support from the electorate at a time when it was, according to the two banking reports, implementing all the wrong policies. Now that it is, according to Honohan, Regling and Watson, doing the right thing and the government performance is the "best in Europe", it is at 17%.

But nobody in Fianna Fáil is remotely amused. Few in the party believe Fianna Fáil would be at 17% in an actual election, but nobody thinks it would reach anything better than the mid-20s. Even at that rate, massive seat losses are inevitable.

Cowen has upped his game recently, but there is still serious discontent within the parliamentary party about his leadership. A sizeable rump of the party – and not just the 'usual suspects' – would like to see a new leader.

But despite the comments of Cork North-Central TD Noel O'Flynn that the leadership should now be on the agenda following Friday's poll, there is no expectation of a challenge.

In the wake of the reshuffle debacle, when there was real anger in the party towards Cowen, former junior minister John McGuinness stood up at a parliamentary party meeting and directly challenged the Taoiseach. Nobody backed him. That situation is unlikely to change, in the short term at least.

For a start, none of Cowen's potential successors is likely to challenge him. Even more importantly, there is a view that, if Cowen were toppled, it would force a general election. While it was certainly feasible to replace one leader/taoiseach without going to the country – when Cowen succeeded Bertie Ahern – doing it a second time would lead to strong calls for a general election that would be very difficult to resist.

"I genuinely don't think we could have a third taoiseach in a Dáil term without having a general election," one senior party deputy said. Nobody in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party wants to have a general election in the current climate.

With a majority of six in the Dáil, the government should comfortably come through the confidence motion this week. However, there is pessimism within Fianna Fáil as to whether the coalition will run its full term. Defeats in the three by-elections later this year are almost inevitable and will dilute its majority. There is also a feeling that the Greens, though rock-solid at the moment, will pick a time of their choosing to walk away.

Pretty much everyone in the party accepts that the next general election is lost and that it is now about damage limitation – securing the 50-plus seats that would give Fianna Fáil the base from which to regroup in opposition. Key to that is obviously an upturn in the country's economic prospects and, party figures say, finally "taking the gloves off with Labour".

"We've been too easy on Gilmore, including the Taoiseach. We're still inclined to treat them as the third party and a potential coalition partner. That has to end," one TD said.

But deputies are also conscious that there are big hurdles ahead. The three by-elections and the Dublin mayoral contest – in which Fianna Fáil has no chance – could result in a rocky period for the Taoiseach.

"It will be interesting to see what kicks off after that," said one senior party figure, suggesting that Cowen's position may not remain secure.

Then there's the budget and the almost impossible task of securing another €3 billion in savings. Cutbacks and new taxes won't improve the mood of an already livid electorate.

As if that were not enough for Brian Cowen, there's one last thing to throw into the mix – the chance of a leadership change in Fine Gael.

"If that happens," said one senior Fianna Fáil source, "if there's a new leader in Fine Gael, that changes the ball game. That's a whole different scenario."