Contest between Varadkar and Coveney hinges on tone
Centre-right rivals for Fine Gael leadership divided by style rather than policies
Fine Gael leadership candidate Leo Varadkar at a 5k run in Dublin on Sunday. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The contest for the leadership of the biggest political party in the State, and ultimately the taoiseach’s office, will not be marked by policy gulfs between the two candidates.
They are, after all, from the same centre-right party. However, there is a difference in tone between Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar and that is the clearest guide of how their policy approach will differ in office.
That will not happen immediately, since the policy structures already set by the programme for government – agreed with Independents and underpinned by the confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil – will have to be followed.
What Coveney and Varadkar will be arguing over is realistically the policy platform of the next Fine Gael manifesto, and the approach of the next government led by the party, if there is one.
Varadkar is due to set out his policy approach today but there have been some small indications of it already. Coveney set out his stall yesterday and firmly wrapped himself in the “Just Society” social reform tradition of Declan Costello and Garret FitzGerald.
He also favours increased spending on infrastructure and the creation of a greener economy through initiatives such as greater public transport networks, including high-speed rail links. His manifesto follows on from work he has undertaken in his ministerial portfolio on rebalancing population growth away from Dublin and towards the regions.
On taxation, he wants to move away from previous Fine Gael policy of abolishing the universal social charge (USC) in favour of changing the bands at which people enter the higher tax bracket and a gradual reduction in the higher tax rate.
Coveney has also taken the same approach as Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and wants Fine Gael to publish a White Paper on a united Ireland, by the end of the year.
On abortion, he says the current regime has to be changed but is uncomfortable with some of the proposals made by the Citizens’ Assembly, which suggested abortion should be available in without restriction up to 12 weeks.
Coveney’s Fine Gael would almost move into Fianna Fáil territory of caring social policy, while Varadkar’s approach is expected to be liberal in the economic and social sense. He too favours greater spending on infrastructure.
But he has been evasive on his position on abortion. At his campaign launch, he said only that the current system had to be changed but did not give any views on how it should be done.
He has previously sought to cast himself in the centre-right mould of David Cameron and Angela Merkel and has lately associated himself with Emmanuel Macron’s brand of centrist politics. One passage from the speech at his campaign launch on Saturday drew the most attention.
“Fine Gael will be the party that represents those who get up early in the morning, work hard and want more for their children and their community. We will work to create a country with sound public finances, where work, talent, enterprise and inventiveness are rewarded and individual freedom and liberty are respected.”
It echoed a speech given in 2012 by Cameron’s then chancellor, George Osborne, who spoke of fairness for those “leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning”, although it did not contain Osborne’s attack on those on benefits.
So far, we know Varadkar too would inch away from the policy on the abolition of USC but would instead propose a wider reform of the taxation system by merging it and PRSI to create a system of social insurance.
On announcing his taxation policy in recent weeks, Varadkar created Osborne-style dividing lines by saying society had too often been “divided into one group of people who pay for everything but get little in return due to means tests, and another group who believe they should be entitled to everything for free and that someone else should pay for it”.
Tone will be important more important than specific policies in this campaign because it indicates a candidate’s governing philosophy, and represents a sign of things to come.