Ireland's tough political operator

Brian Cowen knows he's now at risk but few expect him to fall in Tuesday's vote.

    Brian Cowen is a tough political operator. You don't pick up the nickname Biffo because you like flower arranging and leave everyone feeling warm and fuzzy.

    So when he stood up in Dublin on Sunday and asked his Fianna Fail party to back him or sack him, you knew he'd done his arithmetic and was pretty sure he'd win.

    He's been in trouble for a while. In echos of the UK and Gordon Brown, he was finance minister to a long-serving and popular prime minister. He presided over the budget at a time of unprecedented expansion which no one thought would ever end and everyone loved him for it.

    When elevated to the top job, he enjoyed a bit of a honeymoon period but when the global financial crisis began to bite, his popularity began to fall.

    It's just two months since the country called in the IMF and the EU because of the state of the finances. To many, this was an unforgivable sin, the loss of financial independence, a removal of sovereignty so hard won from the British.

    Cowen's coaltion partners said they would support him to get the new budget bill passed - but once that was done they would withdraw from government. Cowen - realising the difficulty - said he would call an election soon after. The most likely date remains March 25th.

    Grumbling in the party

    The grumbling in Cowen's party grew louder - and when opinion polls put them at 14 per cent, electoral annihilation was a phrase being freely banded around. Fianna Fail sees itself as the natural party of government in Ireland. To lose and to lose heavily was something the party couldn't come to terms with.

    Cowen heard the noises, saw the soundbites and decided to do something no leader has ever done and table a motion of no confidence in himself. In the past where there's been a "heave" again the leader, 18 MPs, or TDs as they are known in Ireland, have to back the motion. This was Cowen's nuclear option.

    No sooner had he made his dramatic announcement, his foreign minister Micheal Martin said he was offering his resignation because he didn't believe Cowen was the man to lead the party in the election. His resignation was not accepted.

    Many saw Martin as a possible successor - but in politics he who wields the knife rarely wears the crown. 

    There are those looking to Australia where the ruling party ditched Kevin Rudd weeks before the election and clung on to power.

    Cowen knows he's now at risk but few expect him to fall in Tuesday's vote. Ireland's politics are rarely predictable but Biffo wants another win.


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