Saturday 20 July 2019

And then the gloves came off: how Leo won the leadership race

In an exclusive extract from the forthcoming book, the inside story of a struggle for power and how ministers manoeuvred to topple one Taoiseach and crown another.

CONTEST: The then Minister for Social Protection, Leo Varadkar, at Wood Quay when he officially launched his campaign for the leadership of Fine Gael. Photo: Colin Keegan
CONTEST: The then Minister for Social Protection, Leo Varadkar, at Wood Quay when he officially launched his campaign for the leadership of Fine Gael. Photo: Colin Keegan

Philip Ryan and Niall O'Connor

A blood-red sunset burned in the distance as Enda Kenny took to his feet in the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting. Varadkar and Coveney could smell the blood from the swirling red and orange skyscape as they sat watching the Taoiseach speak. It was two days since Zappone's intervention and Kenny was there to seek forgiveness. But he wasn't going to get it. ''I know it's a difficult time for everyone here and I accept my responsibility,'' he said, before adding, ''I beg your indulgence.'' Behind the closed-doors meeting, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan tried to rally support for Kenny, but his efforts fell on deaf ears.

Varadkar decided to pounce. ''The events of last week have shown how vulnerable this Government is," he said in reference to the whistleblower crisis. "Fianna Fail are preparing over the next weeks and months for an election and so should we," he added. The comments were seen by everyone in the room as a direct challenge to Kenny: an election is coming and we need you gone.

Coveney quickly weighed in behind Varadkar's call to prepare for an election. He said the Government's handling of the whistleblower scandal was ''calamitous'' and was beginning to ''undermine unity'' within the party. It was assumed the two leadership rivals had orchestrated their interventions before the meeting, but Varadkar claims this is not the case. ''I stood up and said we need to plan for the next election. Simon stood up and said something similar and again people assumed we had pre-planned our comments, but we hadn't,'' he says.

Before the meeting, Varadkar had discussed what he would say with his adviser Brian Murphy. "Because the leadership question was open, everything else in the party was open," a source says.

Once the meeting was over, Varadkar called his press adviser Nick Miller to discuss the details of a line to provide to the media. The quickly developing narrative suggested Varadkar was moving against Kenny, but his team was anxious to highlight Coveney's involvement. ''Subsequent to the meeting there was an attempt to characterise it as Leo trying to push Enda out when in fact Leo and Simon used those remarks,'' an adviser says.

Varadkar invited Coveney to his office in Government Buildings later that evening to chew over what had happened in the parliamentary party room. Neither wanted a heave against Kenny. They still bore the scars from their last attempt to oust him. But they knew the Taoiseach's time was running out. ''We were both of the view that there shouldn't be a heave or a push against Enda but we might have to talk about it again in a few months' time,'' Varadkar says. ''There were definitely people at that time who wanted the two of us to go to Enda together and we weren't willing to do that. I wouldn't like to give you names but there was a whole lot of people who wanted us to do that,'' he adds.

Coveney confirms that he spoke to his rival on a number of occasions about Kenny's future. He believed Varadkar was under far more pressure than he was to move on Kenny, as his supporters were anxious for change. ''There was a group of about 10 TDs who would be strong supporters of Leo and they would have been impatient for Leo to make a move and to push for change,'' Coveney says. ''I think he would have felt some pressure from that group who clearly believed in him and wanted him to take control of the situation.''


Officially, Varadkar was not moving against the Taoiseach, but the actions of his supporters suggested otherwise. On the morning before the parliamentary party meeting, John Paul Phelan, one of Varadkar's key lieutenants, told his local radio station that Fine Gael needed a new leader ''within six to eight weeks''. The next day, Phelan's constituency colleague Pat Deering told RTE's Morning Ireland he would table a motion of no confidence in Enda Kenny if he did not set out a timeline for his departure. This time, there was no negative briefing against either deputy. Both had contacted Varadkar before they went on air and let him know their plans.

On Friday, February 17, Dublin Fingal TD Alan Farrell went a step further and issued a statement saying he had no confidence in Enda Kenny. ''He showed me the statement and I told him I think it's going too far,'' Varadkar says. The statement was still issued. Farrell, however, insists he did not show the statement to Varadkar in advance and that he was not asked to issue it.

RIVALS: Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney on the Fine Gael leadership election hustings. Photo: Fergal Phillips
RIVALS: Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney on the Fine Gael leadership election hustings. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Either way, Enda Kenny's supporters were furious. Journalists' phones lit up with calls from angry ministers loyal to the Taoiseach. The message was clear: Leo Varadkar would never receive their backing if he moved on Kenny. ''Kenny was treated like shit. Kenny has broad shoulders, but he was treated badly,'' one Cabinet minister says. The same minister said Varadkar may not have orchestrated the attacks on Kenny but, at the same time, he did little to prevent his supporters openly criticising the Taoiseach.

On Saturday, February 18, the Irish Independent ran a front-page story under the headline "Varadkar Panics Over FG 'Judas' Accusations". A Cabinet minister was quoted comparing Varadkar to ''Judas Iscariot'', the apostle who betrayed Jesus Christ after the Last Supper. Varadkar says Minister for Health Simon Harris ''still gets the blame'' for the off-the-record comment, adding, ''I'm not sure if it was him or not'.' Harris always insisted it was not him.

Varadkar knew the aggression towards the Taoiseach by his supporters could lose him vital votes from Kenny loyalists. But it was a risk he was willing to take: ''It was kind of like I was damned if I do and damned if I don't because I was getting the blame for it anyway. At a certain point I thought maybe I should be behind it because I'm going to get the blame anyway,'' he adds.

Back-channel talks aimed at preventing a heave were organised by Tom Curran. The long-standing Fine Gael chief had a good relationship with Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe, whom he knew to be supporting Varadkar.

Curran also knew Donohoe wanted a bloodless coup. Kenny should be given the respect and time he deserved to make his own decision, Curran would say. Donohoe agreed and relayed the message to Varadkar.

Curran would also urge Brian Murphy to deter Varadkar from moving on the Taoiseach. Varadkar's team insisted a coup was not an option they were considering with any conviction. Pressure would be exerted on Kenny, but he would not be directly challenged.

On the Saturday of the ''Judas'' headline, Varadkar decided to intervene publicly. He called Nick Miller and asked him to issue a statement, which read: ''Everyone is waiting to hear from the Taoiseach. The current situation is distracting and destabilising for the Government, the party and the country. I have full confidence in the Taoiseach to settle it.'' The far-from cryptic statement led the news bulletins and heaped pressure on Kenny to make a move. ''I gave Nick a line and my intention was it was supposed to be a holding line or whatever and then RTE led with it on the news, so it turned out to be a bigger statement than I intended it to be,'' Varadkar claims.


Coincidentally, the wedding of former Fine Gael senator Eugene Regan and his wife Janne Storgaard was being celebrated that same Saturday evening. A host of senior Fine Gael dignitaries, including Kenny and Varadkar, were invited to the event in Dublin's InterContinental Hotel. The party's top brass were all photographed in their finery as they got out of their chauffeur-driven cars. But two photographs stood out. The first was of Simon Coveney protectively draping his arm around the shoulder of his wife Ruth as they posed at the entrance of the hotel. The second was of Varadkar smiling uncomfortably with his hand awkwardly by his side as the bulbs flashed on the cameras. He attended the wedding alone.

The Sunday newspapers ran the photographs the following day. They told a vivid story - one that Varadkar was hoping he would not have to address at this very early point in his leadership campaign. Here was a family man - Simon Coveney - with his adoring and beautiful wife, versus a lonely and awkward-looking Varadkar.

Varadkar was far from lonely; he was in a loving relationship with his partner, Matthew Barrett, but they were not ready to go public. However, their relationship had been reported on in newspaper gossip columns.

The Irish Independent decided to vocalise a debate happening in homes, workplaces and pubs around the country - did Varadkar's marital status matter in the leadership campaign? Respected journalist Miriam Donohoe wrote under the headline ''Image matters: why a spouse in the picture is seen as important for political leaders''.

Donohoe noted how the photos showed Coveney and his wife as a ''happy, glamorous, glowing couple'' while Leo was pictured on his own. ''Image is very important in politics and it is always assumed that our leaders will fit into a traditional stereotype," she said. She wrote that if Varadkar becomes Taoiseach it would be ''a shift from what we expect of our leaders' private lives''. She concluded that this would be ''another step forward in our maturity as a country''.

The column shocked and infuriated Varadkar's camp. They hadn't seen it coming and were unprepared. The piece hit Varadkar hard. ''He was rattled by that in a way that I'd never seen him rattled by anything in his life in the years I've known him,'' John Paul Phelan recalls. Varadkar gathered his campaign team to discuss a response.

One senior adviser was worried that Varadkar's sexuality would ''loom large'' over the contest or be seized upon by Coveney's supporters. Phelan and Eoghan Murphy argued that the issue was always going to come up during the campaign. They told Leo it was actually beneficial to have it out in the open at this early stage rather than in the heat of the battle. ''We decided quite early on that we weren't going to let the issue of sexuality become a determining factor in how we fought the campaign anyway,'' a senior adviser concludes.


After months of pressure, Enda Kenny finally succumbed. At a parliamentary party meeting in Leinster House in late February, the Taoiseach committed to setting out his departure timeline. He would do so, Kenny told his colleagues, once he returned from the annual St Patrick's Day state visit to Washington, DC in March. Within Fine Gael, there was a collective sigh of relief. At last, the party could now plan for the future.

Varadkar's campaign was already in full gear. Secret meetings were regularly taking place in Leinster House and other locations around the city. A meeting room in the offices of the Public Relations Institute of Ireland was often used to discuss election strategies and tactics. John Carroll, Varadkar's former parliamentary assistant, was CEO of the institute and allowed the team to gather in his office. Nick Miller, Brian Murphy and Philip O'Callaghan would attend most meetings, as would Eoghan Murphy and John Paul Phelan. Wexford TD Michael D'Arcy and Dublin senator Neale Richmond were also drafted in at this point. Later, Paul Kehoe, Josepha Madigan, Joe McHugh, Olwyn Enright, Frank Feighan and Paddy Burke were brought on board.

The campaign was just weeks away and the team began to focus on where the key votes would come from. A master list was drawn up and protectively guarded by Murphy, who had been appointed as the campaign's official director of elections. As information was gathered on TDs and senators, they were categorised as a ''strong yes'' or a ''suspected no'' and so on. The other members of team fed into the list with what D'Arcy termed ''emotional intelligence'' on voting intentions. Varadkar asked John Paul Phelan to draw up a so-called spouse list, containing the names of spouses and partners of all parliamentary party members. It allowed Varadkar to seem more knowledgeable of the personal lives of the TDs and senators he was courting.

Varadkar's campaign structures were built within silos and secrecy. Only a select few knew the full extent of his operation. Some key figures didn't even realise that close colleagues were involved in the campaign until after the contest.

Any information gleaned from party members in Leinster House or elsewhere was reported back to Murphy and added to the master list. Murphy compared and contrasted information he was receiving from each politician. A TD might tell Paul Kehoe they were voting for Varadkar but suggest to John Paul Phelan they were leaning towards Coveney. On receiving this information, Murphy would put the TD's name in a ''undecided'' column. If the TD told two or more politicians they were supporting Varadkar, their name would become a ''strong yes''.

Brian Murphy and Philip O'Callaghan were tasked with sounding out councillors, who made up 10pc of the vote. O'Callaghan had built close ties with Fine Gael's local authority members since being appointed as Varadkar's parliamentary assistant. For the past three years, it had been his job to be at the beck and call of councillors who needed the minister's services. Now, it was time to call in a few favours.

Neale Richmond and John Paul Phelan also knew the councillor circuit well, having previously sought their support when running for Seanad seats. ''We discussed which is the best route and which councillor in the group should we approach. Generally, in every county council there is a councillor who is very influential and there might be one or two who have no influence,'' Phelan says.

Meanwhile, Varadkar focused on his Cabinet colleagues. Locking down votes was easier with some than others. Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty had always been close to Varadkar and did not take much convincing. Varadkar then received a major boost as he secured the support of Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan. Paul Kehoe was instrumental in securing the backing of Minister for Arts and Heritage Heather Humphreys due to their close relationship.

But there were Cabinet members whose leanings were somewhat of a mystery. Minister for Education Richard Bruton was one unknown whose support only came to light late in the campaign. Months earlier, Varadkar had approached Bruton but got a non-committal, albeit polite, response. He suspected the Education Minister was weighing up his own options in terms of the leadership race.

Tanaiste and Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald was long considered to be in the running for the leadership. Fitzgerald had endured a torrid time in the Department of Justice throughout the policing scandals but was still anxious to put her name forward. At the forefront of her mind was the fact that Fine Gael had never had a female leader and a woman had never occupied the office of An Taoiseach. Some months before the campaign began, Fitzgerald met with Varadkar for a coffee in Leinster House. In a frank and honest conversation, she confirmed to her one-time protege that she was considering a run for the leadership. Varadkar asked how she would come to the decision and Fitzgerald said it would depend on the level of support for her candidacy in the party. However, should she not run, the Tanaiste said she would fully support Varadkar's leadership bid.

Minister for Health Simon Harris also harboured leadership ambitions. At just 30 years of age, Harris was keen to have his name mentioned in the debate. It was initially presumed he would support Fitzgerald, but instead he allowed his own name to be circulated as a contender for several weeks. Intelligence collected by Varadkar's team suggested Harris was not serious about running. But it was unclear whether he would back Varadkar or Coveney. Varadkar approached Harris and asked for his vote. Harris responded that he would give the request consideration. Varadkar's team didn't trust Harris. They felt he was playing games and speaking out of both side of his mouth. They also blamed him for the ''Judas'' story that had infuriated Varadkar.

Eventually, Harris decided to endorse Coveney, giving a significant boost for the Minister for Housing. Just before he officially declared his support for Coveney, Harris sent Varadkar the following text message:

"Hi Leo. Tried to call you there. It was unfortunate we couldn't meet last night because I wanted to say this in person. It won't come as any great surprise to you, but I'll declare my support for Simon Coveney. Best wishes with your campaign and I hope our friendship can continue. I respect you and your abilities and will fully support the next leader of Fine Gael. Keep in touch and happy to talk anytime."

Varadkar responded: ''No problem. I appreciate the courtesy of you letting me know. Let's try to keep this clean. Only way we can work together in June and July.''

Harris's supporters say the texts show there was no bad blood between the Cabinet colleagues. But Varadkar remembers it differently. ''Simon and I would have had a strange relationship around that time but now we get on very well as Taoiseach and minister. We have never really discussed the leadership campaign. Maybe we should,'' he says.


On Wednesday, May 17, 2017, an emotional Enda Kenny stood before his parliamentary party as Fine Gael leader for the last time. ''Last year I indicated that I would not lead the Fine Gael party into the next general election,'' he said. ''I have decided to implement that decision today. Therefore, I will retire as leader of Fine Gael effective from midnight,'' he added.

The announcement had been a long time coming, but it did not make it any easier for the Mayo politician. Kenny was close to tears, as were many members of the party he had led for 15 years. When he finished his address, Kenny meekly asked, ''Can I go now?''

The party rose to their feet for a standing ovation and there was an attempt by some TDs to make statements. But the Taoiseach didn't want to hear them. He walked through the sea of once loyal supporters declaring, ''Let the games begin'' as he left the room. It was an extraordinary scene.


Eoghan Murphy was insistent. No one declares until Coveney moves, he told the campaign team. Murphy and John Carroll had meticulously plotted out a grid of times and places for party members to declare support for Varadkar. But nothing was allowed to happen until Coveney made the first move.

Luckily, they didn't have long to wait. At 1pm on Thursday, May 18, the Minister for Housing organised a press launch outside Fine Gael headquarters on Mount Street. Coveney and 16 supporters marched up to the Georgian building and stood in between two black and white large photos of the minister.

As Coveney was peppered with questions by the press, directly across the street, Varadkar's campaign team peered down from the fourth floor of their rented office space. They were surprised that Coveney had rolled out what they believed to be the vast majority of his supporters at his first press conference. As far as they were concerned, he didn't have many more votes. But the event wasn't the first surprise of the day.

Around half-an-hour before Coveney's campaign launch, Richard Bruton had announced a press conference outside the Department of Education on the other side of the city. Bruton called Varadkar before he briefed the media, but the phone rang out. He also phoned Coveney to break to the news to him. Outside the department, Bruton officially announced he would not be contesting the leadership election and instead would throw his support behind Varadkar.

During a day of frantic action, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan also announced they would not be contesting, but would not say how they planned to vote. Minister for Finance Michael Noonan said he would resign once the new Taoiseach was elected and would not contest the next election.

In the apartment on School House Lane, Murphy got word that Coveney's launch had concluded. He was ready to move. Murphy wanted to unleash wave upon wave of supporters. However, he had one final instruction: there was to be no press conference on the plinth outside Leinster House. ''He didn't want echoes of the 2010 heave, with everyone marching out to the plinth saying opposing things. He was very concerned about keeping it collegial throughout, which was the guiding principle of the entire campaign,'' a Varadkar source says.

First out was a group of nine senators who had been rounded up by long-time Enda Kenny supporter Paddy Burke. The move quickly dispelled suggestions circulating before the contest that Coveney would win over the majority of the upper house.

Not long afterwards, a group of a dozen TDs met in Buswells Hotel opposite Leinster House. Many were surprised to meet colleagues they assumed were backing Coveney in the foyer of the hotel. ''It was a complete shock to me. I didn't know who was coming or who wasn't coming. It was all kept separately,'' says Josepha Madigan, who many thought would declare as a Coveney supporter. Madigan was close to three other rising stars in the party - Kate O'Connell, Hildegarde Naughton and Maria Bailey - and it was presumed she would join them in voting for the Housing Minister. In the end, she was the only female backbencher to endorse Varadkar. ''I imagine they would have liked if I would vote for Simon Coveney, but I had to follow my own decision-making in my own heart and my own head as to what I thought was right regardless of the fact it may lead to a fallout,'' Madigan says.

On the RTE Six One News, Minister for Arts and Heritage Heather Humphreys declared for Varadkar. The next morning, Friday, May 19, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe also publicly declared his support for Varadkar. More junior ministers, TDs and senators followed suit. It was less than two days into the campaign and the momentum behind Varadkar looked like it would steamroll his opponent out of the race. Within 24 hours, he had the backing of 40 parliamentarians, while Coveney only had 20. And Varadkar had yet to hold his official campaign launch.

Under Fine Gael rules, first proposed by Leo Varadkar, the leadership is decided by an electoral college which gives parliamentary party members (50 TDs, 19 senators and four MEPs) 65pc of the vote, ordinary members of the party 25pc, and local authority representatives 10pc. Varadkar's decision to focus heavily on the parliamentary party put him miles ahead.

Coveney was hurt. He felt let down by several key party figures he believed would support him. ''A week before, we were running our numbers and talking to people honestly and we felt that we were pretty close,'' Coveney says.

"We were within about five [votes]. We felt there was a large group of undecided people and we felt we would take half of them at least and that would have allowed me to win in terms of the vote I got with the membership. That isn't what happened and once people in the parliamentary party saw Leo was ahead - as is always the case in politics and sport - people who are neutral will row in behind the person who they think will be the likely winner, out of their own interests."

Over the course of the first two days of the campaign, Coveney says he received a number of apologetic calls from supporters who felt they had to back Varadkar. ''I understood that, and I think you would struggle to find anyone in the party who would say I held any grudges,'' he adds.

On Friday evening, Coveney was embarrassed further when he posed for an interview beside Clare TDs Pat Breen and Joe Carey ahead of a leadership rally in their constituency. With Coveney standing beside them, neither Carey nor Breen would say who they were supporting. Before the meeting was even over, newsrooms had received embargoed press statements from both politicians announcing they were voting for Leo Varadkar.

Other Coveney supporters, such as Kate O'Connell, were not for turning. On the way to a Clare campaign rally, O'Connell and her sister Theresa Newman discussed the onslaught from the Varadkar camp. Coveney had been adamant that he wanted a clean campaign: no dirty tricks or smears of their opponents. But the two sisters agreed they needed to put some energy into the Coveney campaign. O'Connell had committed to making an address at the rally, so Newman started jotting down a few talking points during the car journey. On stage at the private meeting, O'Connell lashed out at the TDs who had come out in support of Varadkar as ''boys that are singing for their supper''. She told the meeting, ''I am very disappointed at the last few days. At the choreographed, co-ordinated choirboys that came out. Boys that are singing for their supper. You want to be heard as members. The process, the way it is turning at the minute, your voices will not be heard.''

An audio tape of the speech was leaked to the Irish Independent not long afterwards. Murphy immediately texted his campaign team and insisted they should not respond to the ''choirboy'' taunt. He then called Damien English, who was Coveney's campaign manager. Before the contest, both candidates had signed a ''fair play'' charter and Murphy believed O'Connell's comments represented a breach.

Fine Gael General Secretary Tom Curran was particularly furious. He phoned Kate O'Connell and gave her what one source describes as a ''bollocking''. The source adds, ''Curran saw this as a veiled reference to sexuality. Choirboys are seen in a particular way, Church of England and so on. And this was a reference to these gay young men or whatever.'' He thought it was below the belt and unacceptable. Curran told O'Connell to ''keep it clean'' for the duration of the campaign.

Choirboys aside, Coveney had bigger problems. Saturday was Varadkar's big reveal, where he would unveil the true extent of his parliamentary party support at an event in Dublin. There were still several TDs who had yet to declare and Coveney's campaign team were deeply anxious. At the event, Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald and influential Minister of State for Regional Economic Development Michael Ring - along with a host of other TDs - weighed in behind Varadkar. Coveney looked on in despair. He had his own rally in Cork later that evening. But some of his key backers were getting flaky. By Saturday morning, they knew winning the contest was now impossible. Varadkar had it in the bag. The numbers just didn't add up. They dreaded the prospect of enduring a three-week campaign which they knew from day two would end in failure.

Coveney was sitting in his family home in Carrigaline, Cork when the calls started. As Coveney's only supporter in Cabinet, Simon Harris felt duty-bound to set out the grim reality of the campaign to his friend. When he called, Harris said, ''Look, I don't see how there's a roadmap to win this and I need to know how serious you are.'' Harris was never going to tell him to quit the race, but he wanted to be sure Coveney was not oblivious to the insurmountable challenges before him. ''I'm sticking with it,'' Coveney told Harris. ''I'd like your support, but I absolutely understand if you can't play any further role in the campaign,'' he added. Harris wanted to quit but he was never going to leave Coveney in the trenches after he had decided to battle on.

There were other calls, too. Senator Tim Lombard, one of Coveney's closest allies, received a call from a key member of Varadkar's team who advised him to ''get Coveney off the pitch''. The junior minister told Lombard that Coveney would be ''damaged'' within the party if he went ahead with the campaign. Lombard ignored the plea, but he did feel the race was over and told Coveney as much that afternoon.

Coveney admits he was under pressure to pull out but insists he was never going to give up. ''To be honest, I never really thought about or wanted to quit the contest at that point, but others did ring me to say should we think about it,'' he says.

Coveney was determined to put on a brave face but still needed validation for his decision to fight on. He put a call into Michael Noonan, whose judgment he trusted on all matters.

Noonan, as a former Fine Gael leader, had vowed not to publicly declare for either candidate, but Coveney's camp were almost certain they had his vote. ''Michael is someone I am close to and I trust his judgment,'' Coveney says. ''I rang him to say, 'I'm going to see this through' and I wanted to get his view on that and he said, 'I think you're right and the party needs this contest.' He was right, the party did need the contest and for me I wasn't going to quit,'' he adds.


Not unlike the 2010 leadership heave, another bizarre rumour circulated that Saturday afternoon. At around 5pm, speculation emerged that Simon Harris had made enquiries about entering the contest at the last minute. The Sunday Independent heard the rumour and contacted Harris, who outright denied he had done any such thing.

Leo Varadkar was told about the rumour by his chief of staff, Brian Murphy. ''I was told, or Brian was told, that Simon Harris had been on to find out what the procedure was to get nominations, that he was willing to run. I've never asked Simon about that. I really should,'' Varadkar says. ''It's just as possible that it could be a story that someone put out to harm him, but it was given to me as if it was true that he had sought nominations,'' he adds.


Varadkar had the parliamentary party sewn up, but was still facing a gruelling three-week election campaign. He was almost certain of victory, but he could not take anything for granted. Much could depend on how he performed in the four scheduled leadership debates scattered across the campaign.

When the team prepared for the debates, Paschal Donohoe played the role of Simon Coveney, while former Fine Gael TD Olwyn Enright acted as the moderator. Enright peppered Varadkar with questions and allowed Donohoe in with his rebuttals. ''Paschal was superb, he was scarily good,'' says a source who attended the meetings.

Varadkar was clearly the front runner going into the debates and knew there was no need to go for the jugular. He was so far in front, why jeopardise his chances by taking unnecessary risks? The team had not rated Coveney as a strong debater before the contest. They felt his reserved and honest approach to politics would restrain him from going on the attack. But they were soon proven wrong.

At the first debate in the Red Cow Hotel in Dublin, Coveney came out all guns blazing. He delivered a powerful opening speech about transforming Fine Gael into a party for all sections of society. ''We suspected that Simon had had work in terms of public speaking and in terms of posture, body language and delivery,'' a Varadkar source says. ''I could be wrong but there was quite a marked change between the Simon everyone knew and the Simon that was up there on stage,'' the source adds.

Coveney dismissed the suggestion that he received professional training for the debates. He explained that he took the stage that night in Dublin as a man with ''nothing to lose'' who was determined to fight until the last round. ''I was on the offensive to a certain extent. It was never personalised, I don't think, but I needed to make a mark when we started those debates in Dublin,'' he says.

Coveney had a vision for the party which was inspired by the 1960s blueprint Just Society policy document, produced by Declan Costello. The document emphasises the need for the party to live up to its social responsibilities. He wanted the members to know he had substance. He wasn't going to be an also-ran. ''I want this party to be a party that reaches out to everybody, and that was the theme of the debates for me,'' Coveney recalls.

Varadkar admits he was caught off guard by his opponent's aggressive approach to the debates. He hoped the events would be almost boring; policy-heavy debates rather than emotional mudslinging fights. They were not being aired on television, so there was no obligation to play up for a national audience. ''I was hoping it wouldn't get dirty at all and I only realised it could get nasty enough at the first hustings in Dublin,'' he says. ''Coveney was very good. He definitely did way better than I expected or we expected, but he also went negative and I didn't think that would happen and that caused me to recalibrate strategy a bit. It was quite negative.''

Varadkar took the punches for the first three debates but decided to swing back at the final contest in Coveney's home city of Cork. He didn't want to fight back but was bruised from the other debates and believed he had to take a more aggressive stance. Coveney spotted Varadkar's tactics. ''For the first three debates, the perception and coverage of them was that I had won them, and I think he wanted to put a marker down particularly in Cork that he wasn't going to be pushed around, so he came out in a more aggressive style, which suits Leo anyway,'' Coveney says.

In many ways, Coveney's decision to remain in the race was the right one. He secured 65pc of the membership's vote, clearly illustrating his appeal to voters outside of Dublin. But Varadkar's ability to sew up the support of the parliamentary party meant the result was never in doubt. On June 2, 2017, he was declared the new leader of Fine Gael at the count centre in Dublin's Mansion House. Just days later, he was sworn in as Ireland's 14th Taoiseach.

It was speculated that, in a bid to heal the divisions within the party, the new leader would offer the position of Tanaiste to Coveney. But Varadkar had promised Frances Fitzgerald she would remain as Tanaiste should she support his campaign. Coveney, however, could have anything else he wanted, including the deputy leader position. ''One of the first things I had to do as leader was bring Simon totally in. We met in [the] Department of the Taoiseach a day or two after the result and it was really going to be a case of he can have any ministry he wanted,'' Varadkar says.

The Taoiseach says the only ''significant decision'' he had to make when appointing his first Cabinet centred on Simon Harris. Harris was the only senior minister who hadn't supported his leadership campaign and he was very unpopular among Varadkar's supporters. Varadkar was under intense pressure to sideline the minister. ''A lot of my supporters wanted me to sack him and that would have freed up a seat around the table. I decided not to. Frances certainly spoke up for him and he is a capable guy,'' he says.

Varadkar regularly turned to Fitzgerald for political advice and trusted her judgment. She was not only a loyal political supporter but also a close family friend whom he was happy to have as his Tanaiste. But very soon, just weeks into his tenure as Taoiseach, that loyalty would be put to the ultimate test.

From 'Leo Varadkar: A Very Modern Taoiseach' by Philip Ryan and Niall O'Connor, published by Biteback

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