Varadkar blitz leaves Coveney with mountain to climb

Varadkar co-ordination team had moved into office and were preparing for months

It was as good as it would get for Simon Coveney as he walked down Dublin's Mount Street to hand in his nomination papers at Fine Gael headquarters on Thursday morning.

Flanked by supporters, it seemed as if he was trying to steal some early initiative on the first day of the long-awaited leadership contest with Leo Varadkar.

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But across the road and a few doors down towards Merrion Square, Varadkar’s staff had already moved into the rented office where they would help co-ordinate the early blitz that has left Coveney with a mountain to climb.


The small room in No 6 Mount Street is mostly used by Varadkar's long-term adviser Brian Murphy, his press officer Nick Miller and parliamentary assistant Phillip O'Callaghan. Murphy is the most senior of the three.

Murphy knows Fine Gael intimately. Back in 1990 he pressed Brian Lenihan on Questions and Answers about the calls made in 1982 to the Áras to dissuade President Paddy Hillery from dissolving the Dáil.

Varadkar has been preparing for years, his team for months. Numerous people have been involved , but most were in the dark about who else was involved. Everyone fed back to him, but only a select handful knew the full plan. “It’s better when people are working and aren’t talking to each other,” said one.

The “cell” structure kept the inner workings of the Varadkar operation secret.

Locked down

The candidate himself canvassed votes. Once they were locked down, individual TDs and Senators were managed by his team. However, Varadkar personally managed his relationships with Cabinet Ministers.

First they went for the TDs and Senators: two or three in a constituency if they could get them. If not councillors who could sway large numbers of rank-and-file members were targeted.

The shock and awe strategy of the opening two days was largely drawn up by Eoghan Murphy, a Minister of State for Finance and Varadkar's chief lieutenant in the parliamentary party.

Everything has been timed for maximum effect. Murphy worked alongside John Carroll, a former adviser to Varadkar who is now chief executive of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland.

Murphy was increasingly confident of his numbers but always refused to give any detail despite being sceptical of the noises coming from the Coveney team. “We’re not giving you our numbers,” he replied when asked.

Unknown to virtually everyone, Varadkar rebuilt the team that Enda Kenny used to see off the Richard Bruton-led heave in 2010 – a heave in which Varadkar was himself involved.

Phil Hogan, who led the destruction of that rebellion, was brought on board. For months Ireland's EU Commissioner has privately made it known that he was supporting Varadkar.

Active role

Meanwhile, Wexford TD Paul Kehoe, Kenny's former whip in opposition and government, was quietly working on members of the parliamentary party to build Varadkar's support.

Kehoe’s eventual support for Varadkar was expected, but not that he was playing such an active role. In fact, some Coveney supporters still held out hope that he could be up for grabs.

Kehoe’s support made it easier for pro-Kenny TDs and Senators, initially viewed to be sympathetic towards Coveney, to back Varadkar. Remarkably, Kehoe and fellow Wexford TD Michael D’Arcy were on the same side. They are not known to be best friends.

John Paul Phelan, a long-time friend of Varadkar, played a role in wooing TDs and Senators . Former TD Olwyn Enright also helped out on the PR side.

The elements were all in place for the beginning of the blitz at lunchtime on Thursday, but the first break of the ball had nothing to do with the team: Bruton’s decision not to contest.

Bruton’s decision to immediately declare for Varadkar was made by Bruton alone. He had actually tried to ring Varadkar in advance to tell him but could not make contact.

Back in Leinster House a group of Senators declared their backing. In truth, only one – Roscommon's Maura Hopkins – was a surprise. The TDs who declared later are all known Varadkarites.


By the end of the first day he had around 30 members of the parliamentary party, but none were major surprises. Yet Coveney’s chances of regaining momentum were quickly dashed.

Paschal Donohoe’s declaration was widely anticipated, but Charlie Flanagan’s forceful s support showed that the party’s middle ground was moving decisively in Varadkar’s direction.

A number of body blows to Coveney soon followed.

Tony McLoughlin, a Sligo TD long thought to have been a Coveney supporter, went for Varadkar. So too did Waterford TD John Deasy.

First-time Limerick TD Tom Neville's declaration was devastating for Coveney, whose supporters – particularly Kate O'Connell and Maria Bailey – had worked hard to bring him to their side.

Despite TDs Peter Fitzpatrick, Sean Barrett and Hildegarde Naughton declaring for Coveney, it was now a parliamentary party landslide for Varadkar, with more to come.