Thursday 23 November 2017

Two teams adopt different tactics as leadership contest battle lines drawn

Fine Gael's Simon Coveney with his supporters pose for photos at the launch of his campaign for the Fine Gael leadership at Fine Gael HQ on Mount Street, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Fine Gael's Simon Coveney with his supporters pose for photos at the launch of his campaign for the Fine Gael leadership at Fine Gael HQ on Mount Street, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

It was the moment we'd all been waiting for. Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar would finally unveil their grand plans for leadership.

They've been scheming and plotting in backrooms of Leinster House for months now about how to gain the upper-hand.

Mr Coveney's close-knit team has been telling him to cut down on the long-winded, policy-heavy answers and remember that news clips are rarely longer than 30 seconds.

Team Varadkar has warned him to seem a bit more earnest. He's good in front of the cameras but people need to see a bit of depth.

There was a gentleman's agreement between the two camps that they wouldn't cross over on each other's media opportunities. This is supposed to be a battle fought by men wearing kid gloves.

That approach lasted all of about 10 minutes. As reporters gathered outside Fine Gael headquarters on Mount Street to see Mr Coveney lodge his nomination papers at 11.30am, word filtered through that Richard Bruton would be making a statement outside the Department of Education. The half-hour walk meant the media pack had to make a call as to which event was more significant.

Minister Richard Bruton at a press briefing to say he wouldn't contest Fine Gael leadership
Photo: Mark Condren
Minister Richard Bruton at a press briefing to say he wouldn't contest Fine Gael leadership Photo: Mark Condren

It turned out to be Mr Bruton's. Mr Coveney was flanked by a decent line-up including Simon Harris, David Stanton and John O'Mahoney - but there were no big surprises.

The Education Minister, on the other hand, was about to not only pull out of the race - he was also throwing his weight behind Mr Varadkar.

The timing was no accident. Instead of immediate online headlines about the Housing Minister's plan for a "strong, positive government with big ideas", the story was about Mr Varadkar's first big backer.

Shortly afterwards a group of senators arrived on to the plinth in Leinster House to reveal their support for the Social Protection Minister.

If they had a message for people they forgot to deliver it. Why should Leo be leader?

"Because he's the best man for the job right now," was Catherine Noone's reply, without any verifiable evidence.

But the point was that nine of the party's 19 senators were backing Mr Varadkar. In recent days, Mr Coveney's side has repeatedly maintained it would win the Seanad. That looks unlikely now.

Everybody took a break for lunch before Mr Coveney decided to show it was business as usual by visiting a social housing development in Clondalkin.

For Leo, it was business as usual too as he attended an Oireachtas committee hearing in the dungeons of Leinster House.

"He wanted to let his supporters do the talking on day one," said a campaign organiser ahead of the arrival of 12 TDs for a 'Campaign for Leo' photocall.

You didn't need a calculator to keep up. Mr Varadkar went for a show of strength, sending a clear message to the 'undecideds': "Back me because I have the momentum." Is the race over before its begun was the question being asked by Opposition TDs last night.

But Mr Coveney's backers were insisting things are only beginning.

Mr Varadkar has yet to outline a single policy. He has yet to be challenged on what he actually did in the Department of Health that might qualify him to be Taoiseach.

He has yet to prove that he knows the significance between somebody who eats dinner in the middle of the day and somebody who waits for 'tea time'.

Issues such as Brexit, health, the economy, housing, commuter gridlock and rural regeneration have to be central to this debate if it's to reflect well on Fine Gael.

The number crunching matters, but this two-week process is a huge opportunity to spell out a vision for the party and the country. Mr Coveney used the day to try to set that tone.

At the same time the so-called 'X Factor' does matter as well. The Cork TD pitched up in front of a massive grey backdrop that made him look like the latest poster boy for Newbridge Silverware.

Not exactly ideal when you're trying to overcome the theory that you're a little bit dull.

Both sides say it won't get nasty but that doesn't mean underhanded tricks won't come into play.

If a week is a long time in politics, remember we have a fortnight of this to go.

Irish Independent

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