INSIDE POLITICS - THE LINE IS GOING TO BE BRIAN
Though you might not think it now, this column is about Brian Cowen. For from now on everything in Irish politics is going to revolve around him, even if he fails in his quest to find the holey anorak.
On his first appearance outside Number 10 as British prime minister Gordon Brown used the word "change" at least a dozen times.
The point he wanted to make was as subtle as a riled Michael Ring perorating in the Dáil. Brown's meassage, give or take, was: I AM NOW TAKING THE FOLLOWING THOUGHT AND RAMMING IT DOWN YOUR THROAT. I WILL BE VERY DIFFERENT TO TONY BLAIR.
What Brown is doing is clever but obvious. David Cameron's big message was change. So the son of the Manse was determined to out-change Cameron's change. So instead of sticking an 'under new management' sign outside Number 10, Brown ratcheted up the spin to make it sound like he'd pulled off a palace or bloodless coup (which in a sense he did). If people were looking for an alternative, here it was. All changed. Utterly butterly changed. I can't believe it's not New Labour.
There are salutary lessons there (aren't there always?) for our own permanent government, Fianna Fail. I suspect though that the party has known those bullet points de ghlan mheabhar for a generation or two; the essential need for renewal if continuity is to be guaranteed.
To approach that question we must clamber over a phrase that's become a huge cliché in recent years. No, not the elephant in the room (puleese stop using it; it's so like not cool). No it's the one that explains Fianna Fail success and renewal in terms of the party being able to to be government and opposition at the same time.
Its an enticing little thought but one that has zero merit. Fianna Fáil mutinies are about as real as allocated seats at a Barbara Streisand concert. We political hacks should shoulder most of the blame for hyping up internal FF rebellions when we know their lackluste backbenchers will ultimately do what they are told. Unlike in other countries, anybody in the two big parties (FF and FG) who is capable of independent thought is immediately branded as a weirdo and a bitter thwarted maverick. Consequently their backbench is as insignificant and powerless as the Senate.
Renewal in FF comes from the top. Bertie Ahern is a hunch politician. Often he doesn't (or can't) articulate it but he does have amazing instincts. He made grand announcements on renewable energy targets out of the blue in the autumn of last year, tapping into a growing green consciousness and preparing the ground for the option of a link-up with the Tofu Guys. When you win as big as FF did in the election you can retrospectively point to all the examples of your strategic genius. But you must acknowledge that its Anorak-in-Chief has great powers of prescience.
And so when people say that FF went in with the Greens for numbers, you need to invoke the great philosopher Homer and respond: Doh!
The Greens offer renewal to a government that would have otherwise - after ten years of power - almost seemed as old and tired as a Chinese gerontocracy. You hear football managers talking about injecting youth into a team. Well Fianna Fail didn't have enough of its own so did some heavy trading on the transfer market.
At this moment, you're afraid to open a newspaper or turn on the television or open a drawer for fear of John Gormley or Eamon Ryan jumping out at you. FF will give both a lot of leeway for now, as the Greens' implementing their agenda will win FF kudos with neutrals and act as cover for policies that will be unpopular with the FF base.
And is The Anorak a genius or what? Green Party support may win FF a slim working majority in the Senate. None of us saw that one coming during negotgiations.
Ah Brian Cowen! How could we have forgotten. The star of the election, the anointed one. He will dominate FF's think-in in September as he cements his de facto role of leader in waiting. FF's real tilt at renewal will happen when he takes over. My guess is it will be October 2009. For guidance on what he'll do, read the opening paragraphs on Gordon Brown.