Good week for Coveney but Varadkar may already have the contest sewn up

Analysis: With nothing to lose, underdog status gave Coveney fire in the belly

Fine Gael leadership candidates Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney debate with each other at the start of the Hustings, at the Red Cow Hotel in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Fine Gael leadership candidates Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney debate with each other at the start of the Hustings, at the Red Cow Hotel in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

The Fine Gael leadership contest might just turn out to be a Trump versus Clinton rerun in one respect at least. It just could be that Simon Coveney wins the popular vote. But then Leo Varadkar will have already clinched the contest, because he has taken the Fine Gael equivalent of the Ohio and Florida swing States, otherwise known as the 73-strong parliamentary party. 

This time last weekend, the contest was shaping out into a landslide for the Minister for Social Protection. The trickle of endorsements from parliamentary party members had become a cascade. The parliamentary party had given Varadkar an unassailable lead. With this college alone carrying 65 per cent weight, the sums were never going to add up for the Minister for Housing.

Over that weekend, Coveney was faced with a Hobson’s Choice. That was either to bow out of the battle or change tack radically. The inevitable outcome of both was a loss, but the second course offered the faintest sliver of a win. 

As voting starts on Monday, the dismal picture of last weekend has improved for the Coveney camp. He ignored the TDs and Senators and focused on the other two colleges (which carried a cumulative 35 per cent of the vote).

It was a long shot but Coveney’s team also believed the grassroots might favour a more traditional, and slightly more conservative, figure. If Coveney generated enough momentum from the bottom up, it might effectively persuade six or seven of his colleagues to change their minds. If that happened, it could become competitive. 

Strange circumstances

The early declarations gave Varadkar an impregnable lead and left him in slightly strange circumstances. Like a team which is defending a huge lead after the first half, the tendency is to become cautious and defensive. Everything he has done in the past week has been controlled and prepped to excruciating detail.

It is clear that many months of preparation had gone into the campaign and the co-ordinated launches were impressive for the kind of detail and ideas he came up with. His argument that Fine Gael should not be Fianna Fáil lite, and should not try to be all things to all people, was a decisive statement of intent. But also inherent in it was the potential for division. His rejection of the just society doctrine, his more liberal view on abortion, his expansive plans for State investment, his assertion for a United Ireland, and his more obdurate lines on Fianna Fáil, all put clear blue water between himself and Coveney. The latter also came up with a quiver-full of policies and ideas, including his own version of a United Ireland and to better regional balance.

Fire in the belly

The underdog status gave Coveney fire in the belly. We saw a personality emerge this week, including a capacity for witty comments. These things are marginal and subjective. But Coveney had nothing to lose and edged the hustings debate this week, with more passion, and more pointedness when referring to the potential weaknesses of his rival.

In Dublin on Thursday he injected more passion into his speech but probably did not fare as well as Varadkar who has been a master of details on policy.

The hustings in Carlow was very flat, with questions on rural Ireland dominating. Varadkar made a strong pitch that he, a Dubliner, would be a good leader for rural Ireland.

On Saturday night in Ballinasloe, Coveney came across stronger, and again was able to find a passion and an emotional pitch that Varadkar could not quite achieve – although the latter had clearly approved.

And then into Sunday. In a packed Clayton Hotel, the atmosphere was like a football game. It was clear the audience was heavily swayed towards the Cork deputy, with every comment being met with rapturous applause. Once they arrived on the stage, chants of “Coveney” went up from the home crowd, leading moderator Gavin Duggy to compare it to the Munster final.

The “people’s champion” mantle has been borne out to some extent by events of the week. The Irish Times poll showed Coveney enjoyed a small lead among Fine Gael supporters. He has been buoyed too by late parliamentary endorsements.

The voting for almost 21,000 eligible party members, councillors and TDs will start on Monday at 26 polling stations around the country and continue until Thursday. Coveney has had a good week after a disastrous start. But Varadkar already had the context sewn up, maybe months ago.

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