Fine Gael leadership: Why Varadkar is leading the race

Three-way fight will have no official moves until Enda Kenny willingly steps aside

 Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar samples oysters at the Galway Market over the weekend  with Galway City Councillor Padraig Conneely (left) and Hildegarde Naughton TD. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar samples oysters at the Galway Market over the weekend with Galway City Councillor Padraig Conneely (left) and Hildegarde Naughton TD. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

For most Westmeath supporters, the journey to Croke Park on a summer Sunday in mid July was a largely forgettable experience. Dublin comprehensively beat their footballers by 15 points, a typically lopsided Leinster final.

But it wasn’t an entirely wasted journey for Peter Burke, the newly elected Fine Gael TD for Longford-Westmeath, who lingered around Drumcondra after the game.

He had been invited for pizza and drinks by Leo Varadkar, and the pair enjoyed a couple of hours at the Independent Pizza Company restaurant and the nearby Red Parrot pub.

Such meetings are not exactly canvassing for the party leadership – since, of course, there is no vacancy – and yet are unquestionably part of Varadkar’s efforts to ascend to the top.

Not canvassing but building support; the activities are emblematic of the Fine Gael leadership contest itself. It hasn’t begun but has been under way for some time in certain quarters.

The intermittent rumblings about Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s leadership are preparing Fine Gael for the choice it will have to make. “It’s now the time to start getting organised,” said one of those who will be centrally involved in preparing a leadership hopeful.

The three main contenders are Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald.Varadkar is seen as streets ahead of his rivals in terms of parliamentary party support.

The pizza and pints charm offensive – as well as taking Dublin TDs and Senators to the Leopardstown races and opening constituency offices – hasn’t been the only thing on the Minister for Social Protection’s mind over the summer months.

‘Broadening the appeal’

Allies have been pushing him to make progress on the speech he will give setting out his stall for the leadership, the speech he will make the day after Kenny stands aside. The phrase “broadening the appeal of the party” has been used by those close to him. Sources say there has been no planning for a leadership contest and insist there will be no heave; Kenny will be given the time and space to step down of his own accord.

Varadkar has also been urged to make a big speech even before Kenny stands aside, one to set out his vision and introduce himself to the country as a potential taoiseach. Opinion polls featuring questions on successors to Kenny are pored over for possible strengths and weaknesses.

One of his supporters estimated that of the 50 Fine Gael TDs, Varadkar could, right now, win 25. A plan to keep the contest within the parliamentary party rather than including the wider membership, as had been discussed between Ministers as a fallback option if Fine Gael faced a snap general election earlier this year, is understood to still be in favour with some in Varadkar’s camp.

Despite such private urgings and head counting, Varadkar is adamant that he will not do anything until Kenny stands aside. Rebels approached him earlier this year about a motion of no confidence in Kenny but he declined. Some of those around him believe that Kenny must go sooner rather than later for the sake of the party.

Revamped

The issue, they maintain, is not whether it is Coveney or Varadkar who wins, but that Fine Gael is ready for an election, with a new leader and a revamped party structure.

“The real question is when. It has to happen within a certain period of time. It has to happen soon or the party will be a lame duck. Kenny’s people would love to keep playing Simon off Leo and Leo off Simon,” one source said.

Coveney had been seen as more aloof and inaccessible to TDs but he, too, is beginning to show signs of life, calling backbenchers and asking them out to lunch when he is in their constituencies.

Holidaying in Galway during the summer, he called up TDs Sean Kyne and Hildegarde Naughton. While the pair were out of the country on holidays themselves, Coveney posted pictures on his Twitter account last Friday of him with both TDs during a visit to Galway to promote his new housing plan.

Whereas Varadkar’s appeal lies in the prospect of his popularity helping to improve Fine Gael fortunes, Coveney is the competent choice who took on a big problem in the housing crisis. The characterisation of being dull is known to chafe with Coveney, who is viewed by fellow Cabinet ministers as more collegiate than Varadkar.

“It’s already being said: the work horse or show horse?” said one TD. Coveney’s Action Plan for Housing has been well received and, while the common belief in Leinster House is that he needs time for it to work, too much time could hurt. Yet it is likely to be critical to his bid, when the time comes. It is understood he believes that in the event a snap general election, Fine Gael must have some achievements to credit from its stint in minority government.

Light workload

In the meantime, Coveney risks being left behind as Varadkar uses the advantage of a department with a relatively light workload to spend more time meeting backbenchers and party members. Consistently schmoozing backbenchers is not Coveney’s style, nor is promising jobs or favours , say his supporters, who believe there is definitely a Coveney caucus in the parliamentary party.

He has been already approached by people in Fine Gael committing support to his candidacy but has told them now is not the time for activity. He too believes Kenny must be afforded the time and space to make his own decisions.

Coveney supporters acknowledge Varadkar is ahead but believe they can turn it around. Vague promises of support now are nothing to the hard currency during a contest proper, and any attempts to contain the contest within the parliamentary are likely to be resisted.

With his housing plan now launched, he will also have more time to assess his levels of support – a process likely to begin in the weeks ahead. It is understood that he consulted his family over the summer. One source suggested that, whoever wins, there will be a “Varadkar-Coveney axis” at the top of Fine Gael, with one possibly playing tánaiste to the other’s taoiseach. Both sides recognise they will have to bring the party together, with an an acceptance that contests can get dirty.

“It will do, given there is so much at stake,” said a source, while acknowledging the ill-feeling usually arises from taking down a leader. A heave is not expected since it is anticipated Kenny is will stand aside by next summer.

While he gave no specific dates, the Taoiseach told a number of people during the Government formation talks he would stand aside when the Fine Gael-Independent minority coalition has firmly found its feet.

If Coveney is trailing Varadkar, Fitzgerald is so far behind that TDs have begun speculating if she is serious about competing for the leadership at all.

There is a belief among many in Fine Gael that what the Tánaiste actually wants is a tilt at the presidency and could use a leadership contest to secure the backing of Kenny’s successor.

Such a scenario is rubbished by those close to Fitzgerald, with one source suggesting it was being spread by her rivals to damage her.

It is “highly likely” she will be a leadership candidate when Kenny stands aside, say sources. A source close to the Tánaiste said her loyalty to Kenny means she will not do anything that could be interpreted as undermining the Taoiseach. Recent speeches have seen her outline her belief of where Fine Gael needs to go: back to the spirit of Declan Costello’s “Just Society”.

It is understood there was serious discussion in Fitzgerald’s inner circle in 2014, when it was speculated that Kenny could take the job of president of the European Council, that she could bid for the Fine Gael leadership as the compromise candidate between Coveney and Varadkar.

Main supporter

Back then, she could have counted on the backing of Kenny supporters but TDs believe that camp – including most of the Fine Gael Cabinet ministers – has drifted in Coveney’s direction. Her main supporter is Minister for Health Simon Harris, formerly worked in Fitzgerald’s office when she was Fine Gael leader in the Seanad.

Some believe, however, that Harris has designs on standing himself. Suspicions about the 29-year-old’s ambitions were aroused when he embarked on a hospital and constituency tour over the summer. “Simon is riding two horses: Frances and himself,” said one Minister.

If the contest to succeed Kenny comes soon, perhaps by next spring, the choice is likely to be between Varadkar, Coveney and Fitzgerald. “If it happens by Christmas it’ll be between two, two and half candidates,” said one Cabinet member. “If it’s next July, you could see more. It all depends on the context of when it happens. Will we be electing a leader to become Taoiseach, to go into Opposition or to rebuild the party?”

Those questions will dominate Fine Gael conversation in the months ahead, whether over coffee in the Dáil bar or pizza after Croke Park.

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