Andrew Lynch: It's time for FF to face the need for new leadership as big Budget looms
HOW low can they go? Every time Fianna Fail think they've hit rock bottom, they find some new way of sinking even further into the mire.
Batt O'Keeffe may have risked breaching Dermot Ahern's blasphemy law when he exclaimed "Oh Jesus!" at the news of FF's latest opinion poll disaster -- but the question he and his colleagues have to ask themselves now is whether even a new Messiah could lead them out of such a dire position.
Under normal circumstances, a catastrophic poll rating of 18pc would immediately trigger an internal heave against Taoiseach Brian Cowen.
With just six weeks to go before the most important Budget in the history of the State, however, even the most disgruntled FF rebels may reluctantly decide that this is no time to rock the boat.
As a result, Cowen will probably limp on until Christmas -- but unless there's a dramatic improvement in early 2011, his chances of leading his party into the next General Election will be 50-50 at best.
It's not exactly difficult to guess the reasons for FF's latest slump in popularity.
On Black Thursday, we learned that our bill for bailing out the banks would be a mind-boggling €50bn, way above what the Government had originally estimated.
Since then it's been revealed that the cost of getting our Budget deficit under control by 2014 will be around €15bn, exactly twice what Brian Lenihan promised last year.
Finally, the news has been dominated by rumours about what the Minister for Finance might do on December 7 -- and while these leaks are usually designed to soften the public up, this year they just seem to be making people mad as hell.
The weekend's opinion poll does contain one small crumb of comfort for FF.
It suggests that despite the voters' fury with the Government, only 25pc believe that Fine Gael or Labour would manage the economy any better.
That should make the Soldiers of Destiny's future course of action blindingly obvious -- because while winning the next election is certainly beyond them, it may not be too late to avoid a complete meltdown.
To turn the tide, FF have to get people to stop asking the question, "Who got us into this mess?" and start asking, "Who has the best plan to get us out of it?" instead.
Focusing on the future rather than the past can only help the Government, since it's becoming clear that FG and Labour don't have any painless solutions either.
However, FF can't use this strategy as long as they're led by a man who was Minister for Finance between 2004 and 2008, exactly when some of the most crucial mistakes were made.
That's why for any FF TD who's interested in self-preservation, getting rid of Brian Cowen should be a question of 'when' rather than 'if'.
Even if a leadership heave forces an early General Election, it's got to be better than giving up without a fight.
The rebels believe that if they can force a vote on the issue, they will probably win -- but unfortunately, they are badly divided on who the next leader should be.
Ever since last month's 'Garglegate' fiasco, the possible candidates have been quietly weighing up their chances.
Although Brian Lenihan is far and away the most popular choice with the electorate, he seems to have concluded that his health problems must rule him out in the short-term.
That leaves Micheal Martin and Mary Hanafin as the only two ministers who could offer themselves as Taoiseach without anybody actually laughing out loud. And if they need any encouragement, they should realise that the latest opinion poll means they're both now in grave danger of losing their Dail seats.
Brian Cowen is leading his flock like lambs to the slaughter. It's about time they started looking for a new shepherd.