Fine Gael leadership: A choice between the mercurial and the earnest

Enda Kenny’s failure to distinguish between parable and fact was his downfall

 The only realistic contenders for the Fine Gael leadership are Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, with the former seen as the frontrunner.  File photograph: Gareth chaney Collins

The only realistic contenders for the Fine Gael leadership are Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, with the former seen as the frontrunner. File photograph: Gareth chaney Collins

 

There are some stock anecdotes Enda Kenny has leaned heavily on over the years. One of them involves a man with two pints in his hands coming up to him in a bar and giving out about water charges, and Kenny telling the man he would be paying less in his monthly bill than the two pints in his hand.

Kenny repeated the same story a number of times, each time placing it in the here and now. Unless the same man kept on coming up to him saying the same thing every few months with two pints in his hand, a la Groundhog day, the story was moral instruction rather than something real.

It was the Taoiseach’s failure to distinguish between parable and fact that did for him in the end. He was not felled by something momentous, but a slip of the tongue and a slight tendency to merge reality with illustration.

The cringe-worthy admission of that during a torrid three hours in the Dáil on Tuesday was an involuntary resignation letter.

Time at the helm

After the frenzy of the previous days, Thursday was a relatively calm day, in which all the players were taking stock of where things were. Kenny himself is reconciled to the idea, according to those close to him, that his time at the helm is coming to an end.

However, he wants his departure not to be dominated by (and remembered for) his embarrassing faux-pas. He is said to be looking for time and space to name his departure date so that the exit can be orderly and dignified.

Generally, there is acceptance among members of Fine Gael that that should be the template. Still, there are some members of the party’s awkward squad who believe he will tarry and who want him gone now.

The Carlow TD Pat Deering threatened yesterday that if Kenny does not name a date next week, then a motion of no confidence will be tabled. Deering’s initiative did not go down well with colleagues, who felt it was adding insult to injury. There were suspicions he was acting as a stalking horse for one of the challengers.

Many of the party’s TDs and Senators say they are comfortable with a late spring departure for Kenny – to give him a slightly less showy version of Bertie’s “lap of honour”.

If that happens, he will also visit the White House for the shamrock ceremony with President Donald Trump. For his successor, shaking Trump’s hand would be a high wire act with danger written all over it, that would be too risky so early into their leadership.

The only realistic contenders are Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, with the former seen as the frontrunner. Like other parties, Fine Gael no longer relies on its TDs and Senators to choose the leader. The vote of the parliamentary party is worth 65 per cent, with a further 25 per cent for members, and 10 per cent for councillors.

Varadkar is very popular with the public and is well ahead with the membership. However, talking to TDs and Senators yesterday, it is evident the gap between him and Coveney is not large within the parliamentary party.

Varadkar is mercurial

They both represent very different forms of leadership. Varadkar is mercurial and might be unpredictable. If the party is looking for a step-change, a “disrupter”, he will fit the bill. However, he can be seen as arrogant and distant. He is conscious of the narrative of non-achievement in his various ministries. He could be stellar. But enough colleagues also fear he could bellyflop.

Coveney is slightly more continuity, safe-pair-of-hands type. He is solid, a prodigiously hard-worker, painfully earnest and can be a bit stolid.

While Fine Gael might have been spooked by the prospect of a snap election , the reality is that Fianna Fáil was never going to do that.

A senior figure in Fianna Fáil said yesterday that it always envisaged a change of leadership and knew it would take a hit in polls during the honeymoon period of the new taoiseach.

The party’s strategy is “responsible” opposition and, on the basis of that, it will have to be on very solid ground before pulling the plug .

What is certain to outlive the government is the Charleton tribunal. Yesterday Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald announced wider terms. There was talk of the first report within nine months. It would be a surprise if the tribunal completes its work by the end of this decade. The man with two pints will have plenty to complain about.

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