Wednesday 26 October 2016

Eyes wide open: Leo's slow but sure march to lead FG

Leo Varadkar's public challenge to Alan Shatter has its eye on the leadership, writes John Drennan

Published 23/03/2014 | 02:30

POWER GAME: The Transport Minister may have set his sights on Martin Callinan last week, but this is all about Alan Shatter.
POWER GAME: The Transport Minister may have set his sights on Martin Callinan last week, but this is all about Alan Shatter.

IN politics, there are ways, when dealing with controversial issues, of getting into fights, and of avoiding fights. Leo Varadkar has been so politically cautious in government, some have mused about how he was becoming more like Simon Coveney than Simon Coveney himself.

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So why did Mr Varadkar decide, with eyes wide open, to land himself in a great big war with the Taoiseach's close political ally Alan Shatter?

The one thing you can be sure about in Irish politics is that when ministers make high-profile interventions in public, involving rattling the cage of Cabinet colleagues, it's all about the power game.

Speaking in Australia recently, Simon Coveney may have nibbled ever so gently at Alan Shatter's political posterior when he said that whistleblowers must be protected. But Leo's homage to the Garda whistleblowers last week represented a full-blown shoulder charge on Mr Shatter.

Leo might have set his sights on Martin Callinan last week, but this is all about Alan Shatter.

And while the head of the minister would be nice, the commissioner would do.

Indeed it might more than do for a Justice Minister who cannot protect his hand-picked commissioner.

So what message was Leo sending last week?

The first and clearest one was that in a Cabinet where some speculate that even Enda is a bit nervous of Mr Shatter, Varadkar was letting FG know he believes himself to be as big a beast as the Justice Minister.

Varadkar was also informing an increasingly disillusioned Fine Gael party that there is still a new generation in Cabinet that does not subscribe to the same politics as the 'good ol' boys' who increasingly appear to be in it for the perks and the pension.

The decision by Leo to gazump Simon Coveney on the leadership front by singeing the Justice Ministers beard – and by extension Enda's own political whispers – fostered some speculation about leadership heaves.


The truth of that matter is that while we are not there yet, we are getting there faster than the 'Dear Leader' Enda might like.

Enda may have led Fine Gael to the very jaws of single-party governance, but politics is always in a flux and leadership triumphs are always temporary.

The time is coming – and it is sooner than the 'Dear Leader' might like – when FG will have to deal with life after Enda.

Indeed, the time has already arrived where the party has started to think about it.

And two who are thinking about it a lot more than most are Leo and Simon.

For now, the date of Enda's departure (and all the lamentations that must follow) is set for some time around 2018, but things may change and any weakening of Mr Shatter would have no small impact on Mr Kenny.

Increasingly, the fair wind filling the sails of the 'lucky Taoiseach' has turned on Mr Kenny.

The polls and political landscape have suddenly become surlier whilst his closest political ally, Phil Hogan, is in the departure lounge for the European Commission job.

In fact, when it comes to Enda, all the political pillars are crumbling.

The Taoiseach's exiled political director Frank Flannery is in trouble beyond trouble – whilst his Health Minister is always in trouble.

Now, in the wake of Mr Varadkar's demarche, Mr Shatter essentially serves at the discretion of Labour. Should Mr Shatter resign, it would not be a prelude for a putsch.

But it would severely erode the Taoiseach's Cabinet power base – for the credit of taoisigh depends on the fate of ministers.

In a set of circumstances such as that come October, for Mr Kenny, accepting the pleas of Europe and departing, having fulfilled his mandate of releasing Ireland from the icy grip of the Troika, might look a lot more attractive.

After last week the one thing that is clear is that Leo hasn't gone away you know. In fact, he may just be arriving.

Sunday Independent

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