Kenny bides his time as challengers stake their claims
Varadkar and Coveney have private meeting as fighting breaks out in the Fine Gael ranks
Enda Kenny at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit: sources close to him believe he will stand down. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney left the Dáil chamber for a private meeting on Wednesday night as a debate on the Government’s confidence motion continued. Coveney had delivered his speech. Varadkar was yet to be called.
The two had earlier, however, made far more significant contributions in Fine Gael’s rooms in Leinster House. One after the other they had called on Fine Gael to be election-ready. The pair had effectively put Enda Kenny on notice that his leadership was coming to an end.
Kenny’s handling of recent controversies surrounding Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe caused dismay, but the mutinous mood was driven by the fact that Fine Gael TDs felt they had come within touching of an election.
Coveney and Varadkar had tried to calm backbenchers seeking immediate action against Kenny but Varadkar, in particular, is understood to have concluded the Taoiseach would not go without a subtle push.
Sources close to both men insist the polite takedown of Kenny was not co-ordinated, but those who witnessed it cannot shake the suspicion.
“It was one of the most rebellious meetings I have been at,” said one backbencher. “Courteous, friendly – coded. The way people might think Fine Gael do rebellions.”
Varadkar and Coveney get on well, and theirs is not a poisonous relationship of competing ambitions. They had not yet held serious discussions on the contest to come, with Coveney said to be reluctant to engage, but did so in an office on the ministerial corridor linking Leinster House and Government Buildings on Wednesday night. It is understood that the need to avoid a divisive contest which could damage Fine Gael was discussed.
The events of Wednesday night marked the beginning of a generational change in Fine Gael, with Kenny facing the choice of outlining a departure plan or fighting a motion of no confidence.
Courteous, friendly – coded. The way people might think Fine Gael do rebellions
The majority of TDs say the Taoiseach deserves to be let go on his own terms, as long as he indicates a timeframe. A 12-week period, which includes the three- to four-week process of electing a new party leader, has been mooted.
Despite what appeared to be fighting talk from Kenny, sources close to him believe he will stand down. Crucially, there is no evidence of anyone attempting to shore up support for him among TDs.
“He will give the impression that he will [fight] for optics purposes only,” said one. “But I think he’s happy with 12 weeks.”
Whether he should be given that long is disputed within the parliamentary party. Some believe it is too long to wait just to allow him to become the longest-serving Fine Gael taoiseach, a record held by John A Costello. It is seen as an indulgence that will not be tolerated by the public. Others maintain that Kenny can have a lap of honour, based on the service he has given since 2002.
The generational change was not just being marked by the beginning of the end of Kenny’s tenure. Whereas before Michael Noonan was a calming influence at previous party meetings, his contribution this week, laying out the economic progress since Fine Gael entered government in 2011, was seen as a stalling tactic to help ward off criticism of Kenny.
“It felt like two years, but it was probably 20 minutes,” said one TD.
And, as often happens during such fevered times, anger spills over. Noel Rock, the first-time TD who repeatedly called on Kenny to spell out his departure plans, was buttonholed in a Leinster House lift by voluble Independent Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell, twice appointed to the Seanad by the Taoiseach.
O’Donnell called Rock – who nominated Kenny for Taoiseach in the Dáil on four occasions – a traitor.
Kildare North’s Bernard Durkan, who is hugely pro-Kenny, was seen in animated conversation with Coveney at the doors to the Dáil chamber.
Tensions had been bubbling under before this week, even between supporters of Varadkar and Coveney.
At the previous week’s parliamentary party meeting, Carlow-Kilkenny’s John Paul Phelan – one of Varadkar’s main supporters – accused Coveney of lying over potential changes to county boundaries. His claim that Coveney’s behaviour fed into a perception of Fine Gael as overprivileged was interpreted as a vicious charge, given the wealth of the Coveney family.
Damien English, the Minister of State who will run Coveney’s campaign, saw a Varadkar proxy attacking his man, who was absent from the meeting.
The Varadkar camp accused Coveney’s backers of not doing enough to address Kenny’s leadership but English and Phelan soon calmed down. Both agreed that the leadership would be decided soon, and Phelan and Coveney later cleared the air.
Deering has said he will table a motion of no confidence in Kenny if the Taoiseach does not give an indication of when he intends to stand aside. Kenny supporters – and some of Coveney’s – maintain he will not follow through, but there are enough TDs willing to back such a motion for it to be taken.
Varadkar has been at pains to dissociate himself from this course of action and has said Kenny will know himself when to go. Coveney says a motion would not be helpful and that Kenny will “act on his own judgment”.
Deering has said he will table a motion of no confidence in Kenny if the Taoiseach does not give an indication of when he intends to stand aside
Yet those on the Coveney side claim Varadkar is in a rush and maintain a long campaign suits the Minister for Housing. “You just have to look at the people who are out mouthing off and ask who they are supporting,” said one.
In turn, Varadkar supporters believe there is “overlap” between the Kenny and Coveney camps.
Even if Kenny’s departure comes in one week or 12, the conversation has turned swiftly to the contest to succeed him.
Varadkar will offer a vision of Fine Gael in line with his own personal credo of classic liberalism, with a dash of strong – but not big – government. He has often spoken of broadening the appeal of the party and will claim he will reach sections of the electorate Coveney cannot.
Coveney’s calling card will be competency and an ability to deliver big policies. It will be acknowledged that Varadkar is likely to be more successful at the next election, but a claim that he could then get bored and disinterested will follow, thus depicting him as a dangerous long-term bet. Varadkar’s ability to get along with Independents and future coalition partners will also be questioned.
The number crunchers in Leinster House believe the contest will be much closer than most realise.
Under party rules, the leadership is decided by an electoral college which gives parliamentarians 65 per cent of the votes, ordinary members 25 per cent and councillors 10 per cent.
The party membership is largely based outside Dublin, which could help Coveney, and both men have competed for the affections of councillors of late.
Both believe a three-week leadership contest is not only desirable but a necessary vehicle to develop a distinctive policy platform ahead of the next election.
The contest is primed. It is now only a matter of when it formally begins.