Coveney running traditional campaign as Varadkar just runs

‘Blue blood’ Minister for Housing may yet become unlikely hero of the rank and file

Fine Gael leadership contender Simon Coveney revealed on Sunday what was said when those he assumed to be staunch supporters told him they were backing his rival Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar.

The conversations must have been excruciating.

“Many people who had very, very positive conversations with me came to me and said ‘Look Simon, I see this going one direction. I don’t want to get on the wrong side and I hope you understand,’” the Minister for Housing said.

They might have sat together at Cabinet for years. Maybe they attended each other’s weddings. Perhaps their father’s were friendly. But none of that matters in the blood sport that is leadership change, when coming second means coming last.

“That’s politics,” Coveney said.

At the launch of his policy priorities document, the polite Coveney had just one gentle dig at Varadkar, the man with the momentum, who had earlier met the press at the start line of a 5km road race in Dublin.

“I get up in the morning and go for a 5k run every now and again too.”

It was an expression of mild exasperation from a still-young but somewhat old-style politician, running a traditional political campaign with policies, posters and all the conventional paraphernalia.

As it has been from the beginning, Coveney had just one member of the Cabinet by his side. The shattered Minister for Health Simon Harris, who has a demanding day job and deserves some credit for backing his man early, has been wearing the haunted look of someone who fears he has backed the wrong horse.

No matter what happens, Coveney will remain in Cabinet. Varadkar has confirmed that.

Asked what position he would like, Coveney said he was more concerned about the fate of those who had committed to him.

He paid tribute to Harris and deputies such as Galway TD Hildegarde Naughton for swimming against the tide, stressing that if he was leader he would make appointments on the basis of talent rather than loyalty.

Other rebels

Harris will be hoping the man currently tipped to succeed copies the example of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who forgave Varadkar and some of the other rebels who participated in the abortive 2010 heave against him.

But Varadkar's expected appearance in Harris's Wicklow constituency on Monday will be difficult for the 30-year-old Minister for Health.

Meanwhile, the “blue blood” Coveney could become an unlikely hero of the rank and file.

He claimed there was annoyance among the 20,000-plus members and 232 councillors, with a feeling of offence brewing that the process should end just because the parliamentary party appeared to have made a decision.

All this as Coveney’s nimble opponent whizzes ahead with his own ideas about democratising the party, proposing an European-style “rolling manifesto” to be updated two or three times a year at policy conferences involving all public representatives as well as representatives of party members.

The silence from the only Fine Gael Cabinet member yet to declare, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed from Cork, has led to the assumption that he too has plumped for Varadkar.

At this late stage, there is no real benefit to Creed in declaring either way. If he commented now in favour of Varadkar it would be interpreted as him tolling the political death knell for Coveney’s campaign, which is not a position he would relish.

Coveney is not a quitter, yet his decision to continue may prove a “win-win” for Varadkar, who correctly said a party leader benefitting from a broader mandate would be in a much stronger position.