By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — John Bruton is facing his most serious leadership challenge in 10 years as head of Fine Gael after an opinion poll showed disastrous personal ratings for him and plummeting support for the party.
Despite unprecedented public scandals, satisfaction with the government rose 15 points to 58 percent and the poll showed it had enough support to get re-elected.
As a result, party heavyweights Michael Noonan, 57, and Jim Mitchell, 54, are expected to offer a motion of no confidence in Bruton at a parliamentary party meeting today (Wednesday).
If the motion is successful, they will then contest a subsequent election for the job and the winner will appoint the runner-up as deputy leader.
Bruton, who’s 53, came out fighting and said he would not stand down, citing that he had received three-to-one backing from the party only a few weeks ago.
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"It doesn’t make sense to so destabilize the party on a whim of one opinion poll," Bruton said. "Opinion polls are superficial and fickle."
Only last November, Bruton saw off a challenge led by retiring Waterford TD Austin Deasy. But it was a disorganized attempt at a heave with a vote held within only 24 hours.
This time, his main challengers are party veterans and he will face a formidable battle to survive.
Mitchell, a TD in the Dublin Central constituency of the taoiseach, has had a high profile as a result of his chairing of the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee inquiry into the DIRT tax scandal. He had a liver transplant last year.
"We are losing market share," Mitchell said. "In Dublin in particular we are dramatically going down the tubes."
Noonan, finance spokesman and a TD in Limerick East, said: "It is clear as crystal to me now that Fine Gael is going nowhere and unless John Bruton stands down he’ll close us down.
"I am not saying a change of face at the top will have a dramatic effect. There has to be a root and branch change within Fine Gael. The demoralization is palpable and the organization is failing."
The Irish Times/MRBI poll led to panic in the party. Support slumped 4 points to 20 percent nationwide and the core vote dipped to 11 percent in the key Dublin battleground. This places the party third in the city behind Fianna Fail and Labor.
Mitchell said it could mean Fine Gael might get just five seats in the capital, compared to 23 under Garret FitzGerald. Nationally, the party could drop to 33 seats, the lowest since the 1940s.
These figures spell political death for many TDs, and self-preservation and the prospect of an electoral disaster will focus minds of even the most committed Bruton loyalists.
There are 72 votes among the TDs, senators and MEPs and to command a majority, Bruton will have to persuade them that a change at the top at this late stage in the Dail term could leave the party in disarray.
The worst possible result for the party would be a split vote with Bruton narrowly surviving and limping on until the general election.
The poll showed Bruton himself trailing in the leadership popularity stakes. Only 37 percent of respondents saying they were happy with his performance — his lowest rating since he was elected taoiseach in 1994.
In contrast, voter confidence in the government has hit 58 percent, up 15 percent since a poll taken in September 2000.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s leadership approval rating at 66 percent, is also up by 15 percent and Tanaiste Mary Harney’s has risen by 12 percent to 54 percent.
Despite all the sleaze problems hitting Fianna Fail, what is important to voters are prices, taxes and economic well-being.
An analysis of the issues showed the fallout from the tribunals would only influence to votes of 15 percent of the population. Surprisingly, crime was at the bottom of the priorities and would influence just 14 percent.
The top issues were health (34 percent), cost of living (29), housing prices (21), jobs (19), taxation (17), education (17) and the economy (16).