Tuesday 27 June 2017

Varadkar in pole position but long way to go in this leadership fight

Housing Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Mark Condren
Housing Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Mark Condren
Shane Coleman

Shane Coleman

Advantage Leo. There's still a long way to go and leadership contests are hugely unpredictable affairs, but right now Leo Varadkar seems to have a slight edge over Simon Coveney in the race to succeed Enda Kenny.

With many TDs and senators keeping their cards close to their chests though, nobody knows for sure.

Some party figures estimate the Social Protection Minister might currently be five, and even as high as 10, votes ahead among the 73-strong parliamentary party. But the Coveney camp dismiss this and insist both sides are in the low 30s, with up to 10 PP members still left to declare or make their minds up.

How those undeclared choose will be crucial. There may be an electoral college but, with 65% of the vote, the parliamentary party is the constituency that matters. Each PP member's vote is worth 20 times an individual councillor's vote and more than 700 times that of each ordinary Fine Gael member.

Read More: How rivals' FG party support is stacking up

Unlike Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael also remains very much a top down organisation - a lot of the membership will be guided by what way the ministers and TDs in their constituencies vote. And, for reasons of career advancement, those ministers and TDs will in turn be keen to be on the winning side when the new leader emerges on June 2. So making a good start is crucial.

As of now, Mr Varadkar seems to have the momentum, thanks in no small measure to the way he has worked the party circuit. "Leo has been preparing for this for the past two years - travelling the country, addressing events, meeting people - Simon for the past two months," was the verdict of one parliamentary party member last night.

A few months ago, the belief was that Mr Varadkar would struggle to gain support among the Cabinet. But it hasn't turned out that way. Paschal Donohoe, Mary Mitchell O'Connor and Heather Humphreys are all seen as being in camp Leo. Donohoe and Humphreys carry big influence in the party.

Mr Coveney will have the highly regarded Simon Harris, and for geographical reasons Michael Creed should also be with him. Neither the Taoiseach nor Finance Minister Michael Noonan will declare for either candidate but most expect them both to vote for the Housing Minister.

All eyes will be on Richard Bruton. He clearly would love to run himself and should get the required eight signatures to secure a nomination. But while Mr Bruton has been taking soundings in recent days, he's not expected to be a candidate. Given the obvious strengths and appeal of both Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney there appears to be little appetite in the party for a 'compromise candidate' emerging between the two of them.

Both would obviously love to have Mr Bruton's endorsement. The Coveney and Bruton families are Fine Gael bluebloods which points to the Education Minister backing Mr Coveney, but don't rule out the Dublin factor coming into play for Mr Varadkar. However, while a Bruton declaration for either candidate would be significant, it would not be a game changer. He will not be a king maker and neither will Frances Fitzgerald nor Charlie Flanagan, who have yet to show their hands. Neither vote can be guaranteed for Mr Coveney.

The reality is that there will be 73 king makers. Mr Varadkar's camp believes it can win 40-plus votes from the parliamentary party, though not surprisingly Mr Coveney's people dispute it. They believe it'll be more evenly split.

They need to be right. Forty votes in the PP equates to a lead of six percentage points in the overall vote.

If Mr Varadkar was to get that number, Mr Coveney would need the votes of councillors and ordinary members to break 60-40 his way. A huge ask.

Anything can happen in the run-up to June 2, but right now the bookies odds of 2-1 on for Mr Varadkar, versus 6-4 for Mr Coveney, look about right.

Shane Coleman presents Newstalk Breakfast weekdays at 7am.

Irish Independent

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