Fine Gael leadership set to loom large in next Dáil term

Two questions dominate conversation: When will Enda go? And will it be Simon or Leo?

 Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Simon Coveney and Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar: conventional wisdom has Varadkar ahead but Coveney  making up ground. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Simon Coveney and Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar: conventional wisdom has Varadkar ahead but Coveney making up ground. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The forthcoming political term will see the Government move from the finding-its-feet stage to actually having to function effectively as an administration – it must build a budget, respond to the emerging Brexit reality and deal with the daily tasks of running the country.

However, another issue will garner at least as much attention as all this: Enda Kenny’s leadership of Fine Gael and the succession after he has retired.

When politicians and their interlocutors meet to gossip and swap information, they tend to spend more time talking about this kind of thing than about policy, or budget options, or pensions reform. Perhaps this is regrettable, but there you are. The fact is that Fine Gael will slowly – or rapidly perhaps – find itself consumed by talk about the leadership until the matter is resolved. No doubt everybody should be concentrating their time and energy on other matters, but I am afraid this is the nature of politics and of politicians – and, perhaps, of political coverage. We might as well acknowledge it.

At present, two questions dominate this conversation: When will Enda go? And will it be Simon or Leo?

A number of Ministers and TDs have suggested to me that they see the most likely timetable for Kenny’s departure as later this year, once the budget is settled in mid-October.

Naturally enough, Kenny is keeping his thoughts on this matter in pectore, but one person with a better claim that most to know his mind suggested to me last week that he won’t “wait for the knock on the door”. That could mean anything, of course. I think it means later this year, or certainly the first half of next year.

After 14 years in charge of it and 40 as a TD, Kenny can read the mood of his party better than most.

Candidates

Simon CoveneyLeo VaradkarFrances FitzgeraldPaschal DonohueSimon Harris

And so the choice will probably come down to Coveney or Varadkar. The conventional wisdom says that Varadkar is comfortably ahead amongst both TDs and party (an electoral college comprising TDs, councillors and members picks the new leader, in that order of importance) but that Coveney has made up ground in recent months. We have no way of knowing if this is true, of course.

The choice will come down to judgments of ability and of character, of political appeal and record in office. But also, TDs tell me, there are two fundamental questions: who will maintain the stability of the current coalition, thus avoiding a quick general election; but also, who will give Fine Gael maximum advantage in that election when it does come? There may of course be different answers to these questions, so Fine Gael will have to decide which is the most important one.

Varadkar’s great advantage is that the public hardly see him as a politician at all, and certainly not a regular politician, but rather as someone who tells it straight, is a bit different. In an anti-political age, that’s a priceless asset.

But his colleagues have doubts about his temperament and some nurture suspicions that he is rather too good at media, and not good enough at knuckling down to the mundane, quotidian tasks of governing.

Also, the “not a politician” wheeze has a limited shelf-life, if you think about it. If he became taoiseach, it would be pretty obvious to everyone that he was, in fact, a politician.

To those doubts about Varadkar, TDs are being urged to consider the merits of Simon Coveney: earnest, dedicated, perhaps slightly dull, but extremely solid.

Most TDs and ministers will tell you privately that they think there is more of a potential upside with Varadkar, that he’s someone who could be a transformational leader of the party. But there is also more of a potential downside, that it could all go wrong. He’s more of a risk, they think. Coveney is safer, more comfortable for them. He’s more what they’re used to.

Many politicians are gamblers, but a lot of Fine Gaelers are not. I think Varadkar is ahead alright. But there is a long way to go.

There are two final points worth mentioning.

Generational change

Enda KennyMichael Noonan

The second is this: nobody has suggested with any conviction that the desire for a change of leadership in Fine Gael is driven by concern for the national interest.

Never mind the threat of Brexit, uncertainty in the EU and the fact that Kenny is one of the most experienced old heads on the European Council. Everyone in the party seems to believe that he must depart soonish, certainly in the next six-nine months. This is entirely a consequence of Fine Gael’s consideration of its own interests, particularly its acute fear that Fianna Fail will trip it into a general election with Kenny as leader.

Given Fine Gael’s conception of itself as the party that always puts the country first, you could be forgiven for thinking this slightly peculiar.

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