Fine Gael has its work cut out to avoid identity crisis in coalition

Analysis: Varadkar’s choice of departments speaks to what party sees as its core values

Leo Varadkar, now Tánaiste, not taoiseach, summed up pithily on Saturday what many in Fine Gael have said privately for days: "Today is not, however, a day for celebration for Fine Gael, far from it.

"We are doing what is right for the country but it comes at a cost," he went on, the mixed emotions of many in the Fine Gael parliamentary party around him about the deal with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party evident to see.

Some of them believed Fine Gael should be beginning a natural phase in opposition after nine years in power; others believed that as the party is currently riding high in the polls it had nothing to fear from a second election.

The period since the election has seen approval ratings for Fine Gael, and Varadkar’s own personal ratings, rocket due to the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

However, many in Fine Gael insist that the idea of another election was never seriously entertained, and that there would be no guarantee anyway that its current levels of popularity would have held until a second polling day.

The truth, said one senior TD, was that the party was confronted on Saturday with its poor election result from February 8th, when it won just 35 seats – three less than Fianna Fáil and two less than Sinn Féin.

As well as any residual pining for an election, if any was left, Fine Gael was also forced to leave behind the politically unrealistic years of confidence and supply, which saw the party command the overwhelming majority of cabinet and junior ministerial portfolios without having anywhere near a Dáil majority.

There was, according to one Fine Gael TD, an element of “shellshock” about the realisation that the party is now a diminished force in Government, is sharing power with its old enemy of Fianna Fáil and is leaving Sinn Féin as the main opposition party.

One of the features of the recent debate within the party about whether to go into coalition was the effect a coming together with Fianna Fáil would have on Varadkar’s party’s identity. TDs have not yet worked out how exactly to make a distinction with Fianna Fáil, with one saying: “I don’t know the answer to that yet. We are still trying to figure that out.”

In recent weeks, Varadkar has promised to pay more attention to the party organisation than he could while he was taoiseach. His reduced workload as Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise affords him greater opportunity to do so.

Party headquarters is also currently recruiting key staff and Dublin Bay South TD Eoghan Murphy is tipped to take on a role that will focus on the party, rather than take up a junior ministry.

At Government level, Varadkar’s choice of departments speaks to what Fine Gaelers see as their values: enterprise, fiscal responsibility, job creation and law and order.

In another Dáil speech on Saturday, on the nomination of Micheál Martin as Taoiseach, Varadkar, despite the sentiments he would later express, said that a third consecutive term in power is “an opportunity” for Fine Gael.

“This is a chance to protect what has been achieved and secured over the past nine years. It is also a second chance, an opportunity to get right some of the things we did not get right.”

At a parliamentary party meeting in the Convention Centre earlier on Saturday morning, Varadkar told TDs, Senators and MEPs he wanted the new Fine Gael Ministers to "outshine" but not "undermine" their counterparts in Fianna Fáil and the Greens. He also put his TDs and Ministers on notice that there will be a Cabinet reshuffle in December 2022 when he takes over as taoiseach.

It seems Fine Gael hopes that competency across key departments by his Ministers – who have the threat of a reshuffle in two years’ time dangling over them – will at least go some of the way to maintaining party identity.