After emotional farewell, first phase of FG leadership fray is crucial

Leo Varadkar will try to show in coming days the contest is over before it even begins

Simon Coveney: his efforts on housing and his apparent popularity among the Fine Gael grassroots have closed the gap on Varadkar

Simon Coveney: his efforts on housing and his apparent popularity among the Fine Gael grassroots have closed the gap on Varadkar

 

Wednesday night belonged to Enda Kenny. His emotional statement to the Fine Gael parliamentary party announcing his retirement was hardly a shock but it stopped the political heartbeat in Leinster House all the same.

And it brought forth a wave of tributes and warmth for the soon-to-be former Taoiseach, in some cases from quarters agitating for his departure hours before. Even Gerry Adams wished Kenny well . But that is not just the way of politics, it is the way of life.

And politics, like life, moves on quickly.

The next business is the Fine Gael leadership campaign, and it will dominate Irish political life for the next fortnight. In truth, the campaign has been underway for months; from now on it just becomes official.

There may be more candidates, but in reality there are only two. The whole point of the exercise is change, and Simon Coveney or Leo Varadkar offer generational and political change of a sort that will afford the party and the Government the opportunity – only the opportunity, mind – of rejuvenation and reinvention.

A sideways move to Frances Fitzgerald or Richard Bruton sort of defeats the purpose of changing the leader in the first place.

There are various matrices available for gauging support in the party for the two pretenders, including a very detailed one available on irishtimes.com. They all show much of the party – and the election will involve TDs, councillors and members – is undecided, or at least too coy to say for now.

Pretty even

Beyond that most gauges of support say that the race is pretty even, but that the advantage lies with Varadkar. Insofar as the conventional wisdom in Leinster House is a guide, it tends to trundle hesitantly toward the same conclusion: Leo is ahead but the game is on.

So here is the crucial, and possibly decisive, battle of the first phase of the campaign: Varadkar will seek to transform that lead into momentum over the coming days.

He will marshall as much support as he can over the coming hours and days with the intention of demonstrating that the contest is over before it even begins.

He will want to convince wavering TDs that he is unstoppable, and that if they wish to get on the train it’s leaving now. His allies have long talked about their intention to unveil overwhelming support at the start of the campaign.

For Coveney (as some of his lieutenants agree) the task over these coming days is to stay in the race, to stay alive, to demonstrate that whatever Varadkar’s guys say,this race ain’t over.

His supporters dispute with some force Varadkar’s purported lead, but they know that he needs to get to Monday with a clear sense that the contest is still on, is there to be won.

Closed the gap

A year ago Coveney would hardly have featured in the leadership stakes, but his achievement of pulling together the coalition, his efforts on housing and homelessness, and his apparent popularity amongst the Fine Gael grassroots have closed the gap on Varadkar and allowed him to elbow his way into the contest. He has form in playing catch-up.

Divining the true intentions of politician is always a tricky business, partly because simulation and dissimulation is always part of their game, part of the politician’s survival toolkit.

Many are playing their cards close to their chests, some because they haven’t made up their minds, some of them because they are desperately trying to figure out who is going to win. The early days of the contest will be crucial in the formation of those judgments.

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