Andrew Lynch: Burton must cut loose to save limp Labour's bacon
Joan Burton is getting ready for her close-up. Next Saturday she will make history by becoming the first female Labour leader to address her party conference live on television.
Unfortunately for the Tanaiste, this major media opportunity could also be her last - because Labour is in deep political trouble and running out of time to rescue itself.
Almost eight months since Burton took over from Eamon Gilmore, the sense of anti-climax is impossible to deny. Her initial 'Burton bounce' in the opinion polls melted away ages ago and a survey last Sunday put Labour at a dismal 7pc.
If that becomes reality at the upcoming general election, Labour's next batch of TDs will be able to travel to Leinster House in a couple of taxis - with nothing to look forward to except a stretch on the opposition benches.
Some of Burton's colleagues already seem to be thinking about a post-Joan era. Earlier this week, Labour's deputy leader Alan Kelly declared in a radio interview that he saw himself as next in line for the top job.
This is not the sort of ambition that politicians are supposed to announce in public, unless of course they believe that the next leadership election is only just around the corner.
Why has Burton (inset) failed to make an impact? The answer is that she just does not throw her weight around enough in Government Buildings.
She is a better television performer than Eamon Gilmore and has more charisma too - but to most people she seems to have basically inherited his old role as Enda Kenny's lapdog.
When Burton crushed Alex White in last July's leadership contest some Fine Gael TDs were scared. One even predicted that with such a loose cannon as Tanaiste, we would have a general election before Christmas.
Instead, she has worked hard to be seen as a team player and lost most of the outspokenness that once made her such a popular politician.
On the policy front, Burton is dismally failing to come up with any distinctive Labour ideas. She has apparently signed up to Fine Gael's plan of more tax cuts for middle-income earners in the next budget, even though this will do little or nothing for her traditional working-class voters (or what remain of them).
Labour rolled over during the most recent abortion controversy, while its opposition to the sale of Aer Lingus looks like a ploy to save TDs on the northside of Dublin.
However, all may not yet be lost for the party. Its leading role in May's referendum on same-sex marriage would deserve some credit if the result is positive. Sinn Fein and the hard left have credibility problems that Burton should be able to expose in any election debates.
If Joan really wants to change the gloomy mood music surrounding Labour, however, she must turn up the dial. This means cutting loose from her Coalition partners, setting out Labour's election manifesto early and providing reasons for keeping her party in power.
'Going for a burton' is English slang that translates as 'heading for an embarrassing fall'. It also perfectly sums up Labour's current position.
Which is why Saturday night may be Joan's final opportunity to pull them back from the brink.