Andrew Lynch: There will never be a better time for FF's Rebels to kick out Cowen
Brian Cowen is drinking in the last-chance saloon.
No matter how much he apologises for his disastrous Morning Ireland interview, the public reaction suggests the damage has been done.
The events of the last 48 hours have dramatically increased the chances of a leadership heave -- because while toppling a Taoiseach is never pleasant, there's a growing feeling within the party that they simply can't go on like this.
Sorry often seems to be the hardest word for Cowen, so his abject apology in Government Buildings suggests that he finally realises just how much trouble he's in.
While his mea culpa was officially delivered to the Irish people, however, it was also aimed squarely at his own mortified TDs.
The Taoiseach has privately expressed his regret to several ministers -- but while nobody doubts that his remorse is genuine, all the signs are that it's too little, too late.
So what happens next?
The FF backbenchers who have been plotting against Cowen for some time must realise that they will never get a better chance.
Richard Bruton's recent failed coup against Enda Kenny showed that ousting a party leader is not as easy as it sometimes looks.
However, the FF rebels have one big thing going for them.
If Cowen faces a serious challenge, chances are that he will not fight tooth and nail to hang on.
Since he never really wanted to be Taoiseach in the first place, this would be the ideal opportunity to walk away -- safe in the knowledge that everyone would start praising him for his heroic self-sacrifice.
All this means anyone in FF who fancies their chances of being leader would be wise to start canvassing now. If Brian Lenihan decides to go for it, he will be the instant favourite. However, the ongoing uncertainty over the Minister for Finance's health means that other names must also come into contention.
Micheal Martin may have put down a marker by warning that "lessons will have to be learned" from the Morning Ireland debacle. Dermot Ahern has been dropping hints for years, so this would be the time for him to put up or shut up. The real dark horse is Mary Hanafin, since the novelty of a female Taoiseach might encourage voters to give FF one more chance.
There is also one big reason why Cowen may hang on, at least in the short term. His successor would not just be the third FF leader in four years, he or she would also be the second Taoiseach in a row who had not been elected by the people. The pressure for an immediate election would be overwhelming.
There is another option for the party. They could hang on until 2012, in the hope that the economy will finally have turned the corner and the voters are in a slightly more optimistic mood. They could then overthrow Cowen on the eve of the general election and campaign with a fresh leader offering a fresh start.
One way or another, Brian Cowen will soon be facing closing time. The remaining question is whether it will be the voters or his own TDs who tell him that the party is finally over.