Saturday 24 February 2018

There will be blood: Fine Gael is preparing for a vicious campaign

Leo Varadkar is ready to wield the knife to become leader. But is Simon Coveney willing to play dirty to take the throne from his rival?

The kitchen cabinets
The kitchen cabinets
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Some of Simon Coveney's supporters want to go on the attack. They want to sharpen their blades and take them to Leo Varadkar's carefully crafted media persona. They want to rummage through departmental dustbins and scour political scrapheaps for damaging information on the minister who would be king. They want to brief colleagues and journalists about Varadkar's flaws and misgivings. They want to pull back the curtains and reveal what's behind the stage-managed sound bites and polished media performances.

But they are not allowed. Coveney is having none of it. The merchant prince somewhat naively believes he can win the Fine Gael leadership contest by playing fair.

"Some of our guys are saying we should do something negative against Leo but it's not Simon's style and he's never done that," a senior source in Coveney's camp said last week.

Coveney wants to protect the brand he has developed - that of a diligent and hard-working minister who is above petty internal party rivalry. He wants to sell himself as a safe pair of hands who can guide a fragile Government through troubled waters. This is, of course, attractive to nervous TDs who see an election looming every time Fianna Fail puts out a press release.

Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. Photo: Collins Dublin
Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. Photo: Collins Dublin

Mainly, Coveney wants to focus on policies rather than personalities. He doesn't want to get involved in the dark arts of negative briefing and dirty tricks. He wants to fight a good and honourable fight. One in which the two competitors dust themselves off after exchanging blows and shake hands. But the Fine Gael leadership contest is not going to be like that. It is going to be far from a gentlemanly boxing match subject to Queensberry rules. It will be a cage fight; a bloodbath. Twelve rounds of mixed martial arts with each fighter's fists covered in glass.

Some in Coveney's camp know this all too well and are concerned about it. They also know Varadkar and his loyal soldiers are willing to spill blood to take the crown.

"It's astonishing the level of negative campaigning they are engaging in but in reality it just shows they are rattled by the momentum behind Coveney," one key player in the minister's team said.

Two incidents in the past week have caused concern among Coveney's supporters. The first was the emergence of a damaging internal Fine Gael constituency review of the housing minister's performance in the last election and his prospects ahead of the next vote. The confidential report, which was published by this newspaper, was very critical of Coveney and played into the hands of his opponents - inside and outside his party. Sources close to the minister insisted the report was dirty tricks by Varadkar.

The second issue concerned comments by Varadkar at a press conference last Wednesday - the same day Taoiseach Enda Kenny headed off on a State visit to Canada. The social protection minister, who claims he doesn't like talking about the leadership campaign, used the occasion to have a go at Coveney over his comments on Kenny's departure from office.

When asked about the leadership contest, Varadkar quite purposely noted that he has never set a timeline for the Taoiseach's exit, before noting Coveney previously said Kenny would step down soon after St Patrick's Day. This was a clear dig at Coveney, and aimed at deflecting from the fact that Varadkar has been plotting Kenny's demise for months, if not years.

At the same event, Varadkar also dodged a question on whether he would keep Simon Harris on as health minister if he was elected Fine Gael leader. Harris is a card-carrying member of Coveney's team and some saw Varadkar's comments, or lack thereof, as a slight on the under-fire Harris.

Tensions between Varadkar and Harris have been rumbling on behind the scenes for months. The friction began in February when calls for Kenny to name a departure date were echoing around Leinster House. Varadkar was accused of orchestrating what would later become a failed coup. Those loyal to Kenny believed the social protection minister was pulling the strings behind what was seen as choreographed dissent. Ministers and TDs were briefing against Varadkar. Some suggested it was a taste of his own medicine. They were angry and wanted it known that Varadkar, if he was behind the hapless heave, was not acting in their interest.

The Irish Independent ran a front-page story exclaiming: "Varadkar panics over FG 'Judas' accusations." A Cabinet source was quoted as saying there was a "Judas Iscariot" element to what Varadkar was doing.

Varadkar supporters believed Harris was the unnamed Cabinet source who had compared their leader to the apostle who betrayed Jesus. The health minister was confronted by at least one of Varadkar's supporters about the newspaper headline, but Harris insisted he was not behind the comments. However, even after the denials, there continued to be deep levels of suspicion about Harris among Team Varadkar.

This was not helped by Harris's decision to suddenly announce he was considering a run for the leadership. Until this point, the health minister was a devoted supporter of Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald, who was, for a while, considered a credible third candidate. Nonetheless, Harris stepped forward and engaged in a game of "will he, won't he" with the media for a couple of weeks.

Sources close to Harris said he was urged to step forward by colleagues. He eventually announced he would not be running as he didn't believe he had enough experience.

Not long after Harris pulled out of the race, it emerged he had joined Coveney's team and would be a key player in his election campaign. Varadkar and his people were furious. They hated the suggestion that Harris was in any way a kingmaker in the leadership race, and accused him of dumping Fitzgerald when it became obvious she would not become the next leader. They also believed he was playing both sides of the Coveney/Varadkar divide against one another. So they turned on him. And when they did, it was brutal.

This vicious infighting didn't make the news but it was quietly bubbling beneath the surface in secluded corners of Leinster House. At the time, several senior Fine Gael figures known to be close to Varadkar said Harris "lost credibility" in the parliamentary party for suggesting he would mount a challenge to replace Kenny as leader.

Another Fine Gael source close to Varadkar said Harris had been acting in a "very Machiavellian" way in his dealings around the leadership race.

One Cabinet source even described Harris as being "Iago in Othello" - the trusted advisor to the leader, who later turned on him in the Shakespeare play.

However, a source close to Harris said it was "widely known" he would weigh in behind Coveney once the leadership race began. The same source said the negative briefing campaign was aimed at deterring others from joining Coveney's team.

Varadkar's camp was also accused of seeking to "damage" Harris, so as to lessen the impact of his support when he publicly declared for Coveney.

"Simon [Harris] will be one of the first out when the race starts, but he's not going to come out and say who he is going to support while the Taoiseach is still in place because that would be completely disloyal," the source said.

Of course, Coveney is also the subject of negative briefing by his rivals. His own Fine Gael colleagues regularly dismiss his sincere and diligent image, and insist he has nothing to show for all of his hard work in the Department of Housing.

"Coveney is earnest and toils away but there is little to show in terms of results when it comes to results on homelessness and housing," one Varadkar source said.

"If Leo produced as many action plans, launches and videos it would be seen as 'show'.

"What's the point of being earnest if you're ineffective?"

They regularly point to Coveney's home county of Cork, where Fine Gael was obliterated during the general election campaign. Varadkar's people would also be quick to note Coveney was agriculture minister during the last administration and most of Fine Gael's seat losses were in rural Ireland.

The most common complaint made by backbench TDs about Coveney was that, as a minister, he was inaccessible. He has sought to change this since he decided to run, but it is still remembered by backbenchers and regularly mentioned by Varadkar's people when canvassing support.

While condemning Varadkar's dirty tricks, one key Coveney supporter said: "Can you imagine what Fine Gael would be like under Leo and all that negative briefing? It would be like Fianna Fail under [Charles] Haughey in the 1980s."

Those in Coveney's camp who want to spin against Varadkar said they should target his performance during the Programme for Government talks with Independents. They said Varadkar was uninterested during the process and saw it as a chore, while Coveney was proactive and engaged with the Independents to get a deal over the line.

Varadkar, they would suggest, is incapable of keeping an unstable minority government afloat and would bounce the party into a general election. This, of course, plays on the fears of many ­experienced and newly employed TDs who want anything but the expense and torment of another election just over a year into office.

But Coveney wants to avoid getting dirty, and is, instead, focusing on keeping the party united while appealing to the true-blue Fine Gaelers who believe the party is not one that engages in unseemly infighting

However, Coveney may be wise to take a lesson from the approach to campaigning of former UK prime minister, David Cameron, during the Brexit referendum. Cameron prohibited Remain ministers from personally attacking Boris Johnson and Michael Gove when they joined the Leave campaign, over fears it would divide the Tory party.

However, Remain campaigners said their inability to target the stars of the Leave campaign severely damaged their chances ahead of polling day.

Similar frustrations are sure to grow within Coveney's camp when the blood sport truly begins and Varadkar turns the screw on Coveney.

Coveney might have to develop a vicious streak or risk being crushed under the full weight of an organised political assault.

Sunday Independent

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