Fine Gael leadership: A choice of political visions

Contest has sparked a welcome debate about the future direction of the party and country

 

The Fine Gael leadership contest may be over in all but name but it has generated a welcome debate about the future direction of the party and the country.

Simon Coveney’s courageous decision not to pull out of the race, despite the odds being stacked against him, has helped to focus the attention of the wider electorate on the choices it will face in the years ahead.

Ironically, the main beneficiary may well be Leo Varadkar who is getting the choice to put his political vision before the party faithful and the wider electorate over the next week.

Some party members may feel cheated by the way the contest has effectively been decided by the parliamentary party but they will still have the chance to hear what the two candidates had to say at the hustings and give their verdict on it.

The process also provides an opportunity for Fine Gael to communicate with the general public at a time of general indifference to politics.

Varadkar has made his initial pitch directly to the Fine Gael core vote, the people he described as getting up early in the morning, while Coveney has emphasised his commitment to the Just Society tradition of the party with an emphasis on social cohesion.

On the face of it Coveney is more in tune with the mood of the voters, if last year’s general election was anything to go by. The theme of fairness dominated that campaign and proved to have more resonance with the electorate than the emphasis on economic competence being offered by Fine Gael.

“We should be a party for everyone that seeks to unite rather than divide,” said Coveney’s policy document which emphasised the need to heal divisions in society and between urban and rural areas.

Coveney’s concern for social justice as a key component of his political philosophy put him firmly in the tradition of Garret FitzGerald who made Fine Gael’s commitment to equality a central plank of its platform.

After years of financial austerity Coveney’s emphasis on the need for the economic recovery to deliver benefits to the weakest in society is to be welcomed.

By contrast Varadkar has focused his appeal on those who are in work and who have borne the brunt of tax increases during the crisis. He appears to be talking to his own party members rather than the wider electorate.

In the longer term he is also trying to mobilise this segment of the electorate often described as “the coping class” behind Fine Gael.

His policy document is more detailed than Coveney’s but both of them make assumptions about resources being available to fund tax cuts and extra spending which may not actually materialise. If anything next year’s budget may see a tightening of pressure on both fronts.

Varadkar displayed considerable political skill by wrapping up the support in the parliamentary party within 24 hours of the contest being called but whether he has the wider skill set required to run the country in the interests of all its citizens only time will tell.

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