Monday 16 September 2019

It's Leo's to lose, but Simon will give him a run for his money in this race

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar with MEP Mairead McGuinness during the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit at Dublin Castle yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar with MEP Mairead McGuinness during the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit at Dublin Castle yesterday. Photo: Gareth Chaney
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

This weekend, Enda Kenny faces a conflict of interest between himself and his party. He finds himself in a political cul-de-sac of his own making.

He won't lead Fine Gael into the next general election, ergo, he has to go.

The messages that "he will know himself" or "give him time and space" can be decoded in Fianna Fáil terms as "get your coat, goodnight and good luck, and stay safe on the way home".

Fine Gael likes to be polite. However, it is critical for Leo Varadkar that Kenny falls on his sword soon.

The Social Protection Minister may require a private posse of former Kenny loyalists to front up this weekend and tell him the blunt realities, people like Paul Kehoe, his former chief whip, and Michael Ring, his erstwhile Mayo curate.

Unlike Brian Cowen directly confronting Bertie Ahern, emissaries with an unmistakeable message to avoid the downside risk of being blamed for inflicting humiliation.

Who will win?

I believe it's Leo's to lose for the following reasons.

He is from Dublin. One-third of all TDs are elected from the Greater Dublin Area. He is acknowledged to probably be the brightest and most articulate candidate.

The downside is whether the Bluenecks (as opposed to Trumps rednecks) in rustic Ireland can cope with his 'exotic' lifestyle.

Do you remember Michael Smith's intervention in Albert Reynolds's and Bertie Ahern's contest in 1992? Smith was a Reynolds loyalist who publicly mused about the private life of Bertie, who was separated, saying: "The people need to know where the Taoiseach sleeps at night."

True Blues could cope with an awkward visit by the Pope in 2018 with a Taoiseach, accompanied by a partner.

But politics is a dirty business. The easy life as a Cabinet minister is vastly different to the level of scrutiny as a Taoiseach. You are fair game for every bit of malicious gossip going around Leinster House.

On Simon Coveney, you would think he'd have Munster sewn up. Yet it's quite obvious from Dara 'Denial' Murphy that he cannot even guarantee the Cork TDs.

And it is a problem at national level if you have three potential Taoisigh in one constituency. Not only did Micheál Martin and Michael McGrath get more votes than Coveney in Cork South-Central, but his Fine Gael colleague Jerry Buttimer lost his seat. That is definitely awkward.

The problem for Simon is his primary support base is the Kenny rump - the ABLs who want Anyone But Leo. The reason why Coveney will get the support of people like Sean Barrett, Bernard Durkan and Michael Noonan is because he is certain to give them a run for the their money. With the departure of Paschal Donohoe, it suits the ABLs to opt for Simon because at least they will get out of the starting gate, whereas Frances Fitzgerald could make a deal, by using the leverage of candidacy to trade off for a Cabinet role.

Coveney has an added difficulty. I was shocked at the fallout from the 2010 heave. The entire heave was botched but it was bitter, divisive and people's careers were destroyed by it.

Yet the heavers and defenders both felt Simon was playing both sides.

They really got pissed off with him. There is an issue amongst some Kenny supporters after that. It always struck me how that rankled with them.

I don't mind one side bad-mouthing you, but when you have both sides, you made a right old mess.

I believe it will be a two-horse race in the end as Simon Harris will draw the same conclusion as Paschal Donohoe.

I was personally involved in leading Alan Dukes's campaign for the Fine Gael leadership in 1987. All of the heavyweights supported his opponent Peter Barry.

The winning of the race came from the class of 1981: the 30 new TDs who had won seats and were anxious for promotion.

The class of 2011 is now the bedrock of the contest. You are going to see a drip feed of people saying now is the time to decide this issue and that they are not allied to any candidate.

There is an electorate of 73 TDs and senators in the Fine Gael parliamentary party. People who accurately pinpointed the success of the 2010 heave tell me that Leo's support is in the high 30s.

Read More: Varadkar suffers blow in leadership race as 'Judas' claims sweep through the FG ranks

When I go to check out some of these, the number of people who are from the same constituency is quite surprising. When I was defending heaves or organising contests, you could always rest assured constituency colleagues would be on opposite sides.

Yet I would suspect in Meath East, that both Helen McEntee and Regina Doherty are supporting Leo and have been for some time. He has very calculatedly planned for this moment. Likewise, in Wexford, both Paul Kehoe and Michael D'Arcy are with Leo. And similarly in neighbouring Carlow-Kilkenny, John-Paul Phelan and Pat Deering are backers.

Take it from me: that is some achievement. The laws of political gravity make that damned near impossible to achieve. I'd expect he can continue with his headwind with his promise of regime change. That means the end for the likes of Noonan and others who the class of 2011 believe are past it. What he is promoting is that he has the liathróidí to follow through.

There is no one more adept at aligning himself to the next leader than Noonan, but it won't happen with Leo.

The biggest mass of people that can put their hands on the grassroots are the younger TDs who will be running for the next few elections.

At a constituency executive meeting, are you really going to listen to a senator or veteran TD or the younger TD who will be the flag-bearer for some time?

Career senators whose expertise is in cultivating councillors with calendars and envelopes don't cut any ice with volunteers who wear out shoe leather, and whose inspiration is the party.

Even if it is close in the parliamentary party, it will be decisive in the grassroots.

Kenny has no cards to play.

If there will be a motion of no confidence tabled, for all the people who will abhor it, they will be faced with the appalling vista of a vote. All Kenny can promise is another vote in six months' time.

There is no sustainable, long-term strategy in supporting Kenny. That is the ace card Leo holds and it is crucial to him that he gets a quick contest.

The potential kingmakers tend to go with a winner. Backing a glorious loser is about as useful as a losing betting docket. To have early frontrunning status is invaluable. And this is all about one issue: jobs.

There are about six secure Cabinet posts for Fine Gael into the future and another half dozen junior ministers. You have to be up there in the thick of it to be assured and people are jockeying to be in trap one.

But I would be shocked if Leo does not win. This is without any judgment on my part on whether he would make a good leader. I am simply working off the same basis of this being a bumper at Punchestown.

Irish Independent

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