Monday 21 October 2019

Coveney lacked the killer instinct needed to secure the biggest job in Irish politics

Simon Coveney with his wife Ruth and supporters yesterday. Photo: Mark Condren
Simon Coveney with his wife Ruth and supporters yesterday. Photo: Mark Condren

Niall O'Connor

It had some of the hallmarks of the last supper. A drained, yet defiant, Simon Coveney stood to his feet and politely sought the group's attention.

It was just minutes after polling had closed in Leinster House when the Housing Minister summoned his campaign team to Hugo's restaurant on nearby Merrion Row.

Guests included Mr Coveney's backers within the parliamentary party, Simon Harris, Damien English, Kate O'Connell, Maria Bailey and Hildegarde Naughton. Senators Jerry Buttimer and Tim Lombard were also among those in attendance.

Sitting among the politicians were his campaign officials, which included campaign strategist Ciarán Conlon, special adviser Caitríona Fitzpatrick and Theresa Newman, the parliamentary assistant to Kate O'Connell.

Read More: Varadkar will get a very short political honeymoon - if he is allowed one at all

"You're true believers," Mr Coveney said. "Whatever happens, I'll defend you to the last."

The lunch ended shortly after 1pm with Mr Coveney telling his team he needed to spend some time with his family.

It was his daughter Beth's eighth birthday and as the count was beginning in Dublin's Mansion House, the Coveneys were enjoying the beautiful surroundings at the Bloom Festival in the Phoenix Park.

Despite being the underdog from day one, Mr Coveney maintained a steely determination to see the leadership battle through to the end.

For him, it was the very least the grassroots members deserved.

But unlike other election defeats, the post mortem this time will be brief and straightforward. Mr Coveney simply lacked the foresight of his rival Leo Varadkar.

He didn't have the killer instinct required to land the most powerful job in Irish politics.

Central to Mr Varadkar's strategy was the schmoozing, the socialising, the wining and dining of TDs, senators and party members.

Since before Christmas, Mr Varadkar had positioned himself as a visible force within the party. He was communicating with supporters and would-be-backers on a constant basis. He was showing them he had the desire to win.

Read More: Backbenchers believe new leader can unify Fine Gael as race for promotion escalates

Mr Coveney decided not to put his political colleagues front and centre and instead focus on reaching out to the membership. As one key member of the campaign team noted last night: "It was a fatal mistake."

Another one of his backers pointed to the manner in which Coveney sought votes from his colleagues.

"He would ask them for their support - but he would never nail it down properly. Leo did the opposite," the source added.

The biggest personal blows to Mr Coveney's campaign came on the morning of Friday, May 19.

The declarations for Mr Varadkar were coming thick and fast. But the endorsement of the Social Protection Minister by his Cabinet colleague Charlie Flanagan plunged the Coveney camp into a state of despair.

It brought the number of Cabinet members supporting Mr Varadkar to five. The game was effectively up.

Mr Coveney sought the counsel of his key supporters and family, including his brother Patrick. He decided to fight on; to take the contest to the members through the four planned hustings in Dublin, Carlow, Ballinasloe and Cork.

It was a decision that has since been vindicated with Mr Coveney outperforming his rival in three of the four debates.

As he arrived at the Mansion House flanked by his wife Ruth, Mr Coveney was buoyed by the news that 65pc of the membership wanted him as their next Taoiseach.

But this was a contest that was always going to be swung on popularity.

In that respect, Mr Coveney never really stood a chance against a rival who is often described as possessing the X-factor.

While Mr Varadkar will undoubtedly make some changes to his ministerial line-up, there is no doubt he will keep his rival in Cabinet.

The question remains whether he will appoint Mr Coveney as his Tánaiste, a move that would be both magnanimous and politically astute.

Irish Independent

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