FG leadership analysis: Battle set to be bitter and divisive

Figures suggest one vote dividing Varadkar and Coveney in parliamentary party

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have much in common – both ambitious, smart, political figures each seeking to replace Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach. However, it is their differences that supporters, voters and Fine Gael party members have spent recent days debating.

Kenny’s exact departure date is not yet certain, but the internal battle to replace him is well under way. Varadkar and Coveney are the two main contenders, with early tallies suggesting there is as little as one vote separating them in the parliamentary party.

The initial signs are that this leadership contest will be a bitterly divisive one, with many within the party seeking a third candidate. Paschal Donohoe would be the ideal compromise but the Minister for Public Expenditure has ruled out entering the race.

Simon Harris, Richard Bruton and Frances Fitzgerald are all toying with the prospect, but it will most likely come down to Varadkar and Coveney to fight it out.

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They are seeking to succeed Kenny, the longest serving TD in the House with 41 years’ service; a man who has been at the helm of Fine Gael for 14 years; who served as leader of the opposition for nine years before entering the office of Taoiseach; and who staved off a heave against all odds.

Different departments

In comparison, neither Varadkar nor Coveney are accomplished politicians. Coveney was first elected 19 years ago, while Varadkar has only been in national politics for a decade. Both have served in three different departments since 2011 with limited long-lasting achievements.

Varadkar and Coveney's leadership credentials have yet to be tested. When Kenny found himself in bother it was Michael Noonan who was tasked with dragging him out of the crisis.

Varadkar has long been seen as the front-runner in the leadership contest. His supporters have declared early, and are impatient in their pursuit. However, some fear the closer he is to the finish line the more likely he is to fall at the final hurdle.

There is a fear his intervention on Saturday night was a sign of panic. Those closest to him insisted he wanted to quell dissent while ensuring the conversation began.

Air of intrigue

Varadkar divides some within the party. He carries an air of intrigue that leads some to be suspicious of him and others to admire him.

His critics are portrayed as Kenny loyalists, but many middle-of-the-road members fear Varadkar carries risk.

A known straight-talker, the 38-year-old is often characterised as a sole trader. Few regard him as a team player. It may be an unfair charge, but Varadkar’s status is somewhat bigger than Fine Gael.

As a politician he is incredibly shrewd, as a person Varadkar is a deeply private man. When he made the decision to come out as a gay man he was greeted with instant respect and affection.

Within the party it gave a rare insight into a man who has earned a reputation as being uncomfortable in large social situations and evasive. His decision endeared Varadkar and the Fine Gael party to a new legion of supporters. His name is instantly recognisable, even to those who pay little or no interest to the world in which he operates. That ability has made him irresistible to some within Fine Gael. TDs often remark on how Varadkar’s face on a poster will instantly secure them more votes.

Underestimated

Coveney, on the hand, is consistently underestimated. Tallies from within the party show he is one ahead of his nearest rival at 37 to 36 votes.

The Cork South Central TD is, by all accounts, sincere in all of his endeavours. He rarely shirks from a challenge, and asked for the Minister for Housing portfolio.

He is often classified as aloof and restrained because he does not schmooze well. Coveney keeps his distance.

He wants to stand on merit based on his policies. He, however, is the safe bet – a conservative who fails to excite in the same way as his nearest rival.

He has a small number of close allies in Leinster House. His supporters have been dubbed the "Coveney Committee", and have been less glaring in their backing. They favour a longer campaign, believing it will benefit them most.

They also do not want to push Kenny. They know he and his supporters will play a significant role in who wins the leadership.

Whoever replaces Kenny has an unenviable task of re-energising a party that has appeared to concede the next election to Fianna Fáil.

It will also have the challenge of sowing the party back together after what is shaping up to be a divisive campaign.