Move over: Brian Cowen takes his seat for the Fianna Fáil family photo in Galway last week

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen is unlikely to face a leadership challenge in the coming days but would not survive if a senior cabinet figure opposed him, according to a Sunday Tribune poll of backbench TDs. The survey found a growing acceptance at all levels of the parliamentary party that he cannot, and will not, lead Fianna Fáil into the next general election.

Angry backbenchers have been contacting senior cabinet figures in recent days urging them to move against the Taoiseach, but it is thought unlikely that any minister will do so at this point.

A spokesman for foreign affairs minister Micheál Martin said yesterday there was no truth to suggestions that backbench TDs had been making calls 'testing the waters' on his behalf.

Martin, who is seen as being close politically to arts minister Mary Hanafin, went furthest of all the ministers with his "lessons to be learned" response to Cowen's disastrous Morning Ireland interview. But other TDs described reports that representations were being made on his behalf as "mischief making", with one stating: "Micheál is a long way from putting his head above the parapet."

Despite their public backing of him, there is considerable anger at ministerial level towards the Taoiseach and some backbenchers remain hopeful that one senior minister might challenge Cowen. Phone calls are being made behind the scenes. But the most common view is a challenge is unlikely to happen before Christmas because of the importance of the budget.

TDs say it is "open season" after that and there is a widespread acceptance Cowen will not lead Fianna Fáil into the general election.

There is considerable opposition to Cowen's leadership among backbench TDs. The Sunday Tribune poll of all backbenchers showed they are split down the middle over whether the Taoiseach should stay on. Just over half of the 45 backbench TDs responded and of those, 52% said he should continue, with 48% stating that he should go.

However, a number of those answering he should stay were notably lukewarm in their endorsements. "He should stay on, yes, because it's too late to change," said one. There is general agreement that without the backing of a cabinet minister, backbenchers will not be willing to sign up to a confidence motion in the leader. But one TD claimed that "if somebody [senior] moved against him he would be gone".

Finance minister Brian Lenihan is seen as the key figure in any succession. TDs agree that were it not for his health issues, he would already be Taoiseach and that he will play the role of "king-maker".

Some TDs also claim the Cowen camp is putting about the line that a change of leader will precipitate a general election. There is also a fear that it might give the Greens the ideal opportunity on which to leave government.

"That's the only hand he [Cowen] has left. In terms of credibility and standing, he's finished.

"My best guess is that nothing will happen [in the short term] but he won't lead us into the next general election," one influential TD said.