Tuesday 24 October 2017

Varadkar and Coveney face challenge for FG crown as Taoiseach refuses to acknowledge leadership race

'It's Leo's lightweights versus Simon's senior ranks'

Ministers Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar could both face opposition if they decide
to contest the FG leadership. Photo: Frank McGrath
Ministers Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar could both face opposition if they decide to contest the FG leadership. Photo: Frank McGrath
Ministers Leo Varadkar (left) and Simon Coveney. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Niall O'Connor and Kevin Doyle

Two of the Cabinet's most experienced ministers are preparing to challenge frontrunners Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney for the leadership of Fine Gael.

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Education Minister Richard Bruton told supporters they are actively considering entering the contest to succeed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

Health Minister Simon Harris is also considering a tilt, although he is unlikely to enter the race if Ms Fitzgerald does.

Following 48 hours of high drama, Mr Kenny caused further alarm within the party last night when he refused to even acknowledge that ministers are moving against him.

Asked if he had chosen a resignation date, the Taoiseach proceeded to give a long list of engagements he has planned for the coming weeks.

"I'm focusing entirely on a really busy and challenging time ahead," he said. "Politics is a vocation. It draws you into stormy waters as well as calm."

Leo Varadkar. Photo: Tom Burke
Leo Varadkar. Photo: Tom Burke

Sources close to both Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney said the Taoiseach should be given "six to eight weeks" to step aside - paving the way for an internal contest.

However, a growing number of Fine Gael backbenchers want Mr Kenny to step aside much sooner, and are preparing to table a motion of no confidence in him at next week's parliamentary party meeting.

There are fears that if an exit date isn't set before Mr Kenny travels to Washington for St Patrick's Day, he could try to cling on until the summer recess.

The frontrunners are refusing to go directly to the Taoiseach, hoping that pressure from backbenchers and "self-reflection" will convince him to step down without a heave.

Simon Coveney. Photo: Tom Burke
Simon Coveney. Photo: Tom Burke

However, Mr Varadkar, who is currently the favourite, spoke about the Taoiseach in the past tense yesterday, saying he "has been a fabulous leader of Fine Gael".

Mr Varadkar refused to answer whether he and Mr Coveney co-ordinated their statements to a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party on Wednesday night.

Both ministers spoke about the need to be "election-ready", widely interpreted as a way of urging Mr Kenny to step aside.

Asked what he meant by this yesterday, Mr Varadkar said: "The events of this week show that the timeline for a general election is now shorter than we might have thought.

"The Taoiseach has said that he won't lead us into the next general election but I've absolutely every confidence that he'll know when the right time is for himself, the party and the country, to step aside."

He then walked away from reporters, refusing to answer any further questions.

In a surprise twist last night, well-placed sources confirmed that both Ms Fitzgerald and Mr Bruton have begun gauging their level of support within the parliamentary party for a challenge.

Read more: Opinion: Some in Fine Gael would warmly welcome an election - they just want all the humiliation to end

Read more: Analysis: Taoiseach may yet emulate Bertie Ahern's long goodbye 

Support

In a clear sign of things to come, sources close to Mr Coveney last night claimed he had far more support among Fine Gael TDs and senators than believed. For example, Mr Coveney believes he has the support of the vast majority of the party's 19 senators, a group his backers say Mr Varadkar has neglected.

Ms Fitzgerald, meanwhile, told supporters that she was keen to ensure the upcoming leadership contest was not a foregone conclusion.

It is a view echoed by other members of Cabinet, one of whom told the Irish Independent: "This cannot be a coronation for Leo."

Mr Bruton is also refusing to rule himself out - having previously led a heave against Mr Kenny in 2010.

A source close to the Dublin Bay North TD, however, said Mr Kenny should be given the ample time and space to step aside without any pressure.

During conversations with TDs yesterday, Mr Kenny said he was "calm" and "fine" about the events that had unfolded this week.

But he also said he had been under a lot of stress given the workload and level of travel he had faced in recent weeks. The Taoiseach is still planning to make two Brexit-related trips to Brussels in the next fortnight.

Despite his refusal to engage on the topic last night, Mr Kenny is likely to address the Fine Gael parliamentary party on Wednesday and give some indication of his future plans.

Several deputies who spoke to the Irish Independent became emotional over the events surrounding the leadership.

Read more: 'Politics draws you into stormy waters' - Kenny refuses to say when he is stepping down

Read more: Fine Gael's young guns signal to Kenny that the time to leave has come

The contenders

LEO VARADKAR (38)

Career: Transport & Tourism Minister 2011-2014; Health Minister 2014-2016; Social Protection Minister 2016 to present. First elected to Dublin West in 2007, re-elected 2011 and 2016. Began on South Dublin County Council in 2004.

A medical doctor, Leo Varadkar is bright, and a good reader of the public mood. Engaged in Fine Gael politics since college days and combined activism with medical studies.

Over a decade at Leinster House, he has toned down rightwing stances and attack-dog antics, to become more measured and astute. Is quick to grasp the details of a brief and has avoided big errors in three different ministries.

But he disappointed as Health Minister given his youth and background in the business. He managed through while cooling public expectations on big promised reforms.

The son of an Indian-born doctor and an Irish nurse, he announced in January 2015 that he was gay, and helped deliver the successful same-sex marriage referendum four months later.

Bookie odds: 1-4 money-on favourite.

Seen as most likely to win swift contest. Less clear-cut if election is dragged out. Has been garnering support for a long time both within parliamentary party and among members and councillors.

Known supporters include many Dublin TDs and senators, including Eoghan Murphy and Noel Rock. Others include John Paul Phelan, Brendan Griffin, Jim Daly and Pat Deering.

SIMON HARRIS (30)

Career: Health Minister 2016-present; Junior Finance Minister 2014-2016. First elected for Wicklow in 2011 and re-elected in 2016. Member of Wicklow County Council and Greystones Town Council 2009-2011. Adviser to Frances Fitzgerald during her term as senator 2007-2011. Fine Gael’s ‘boy wonder’ has impressed many with courtesy and ability since he announced himself by proposing Enda Kenny for Taoiseach on his first day at Leinster House in March 2011.

Aged just 24, he began as the Dáil’s youngest TD and his progress since has been remarkable. He was appointed to the most senior of the junior ministries, in charge of the Office of Public Works, in July 2014.

When the minority coalition took office in May 2016 he was given the huge challenge of Health Minister. He has struggled since then but has impressed with his sincerity.

Bookie odds: 25/1

At Leinster House he is perceived as leadership material – but not just yet. Unclear as yet who may support him beyond former mentor Frances Fitzgerald should she decide not to field.

PASCHAL DONOHOE (43)

Career: Public Expenditure Minister 2016-present; Transport & Tourism Minister 2014-2016; Junior EU Affairs Minister 2013-2014. First elected for Dublin Central in 2011 and again in 2016, after unsuccessfully contesting 2007 General Election and 2009 by-election. Senator 2007-2011. Member of Dublin of Dublin City Council from 2004 to 2007.

Paschal Donohoe is a political battler who has coped with reverses and risen steadily through the ranks. Elected to Dublin Central on his third attempt, he also did a Houdini act to hold on last time, after a very disadvantageous constituency redraw.

He abandoned a promising business career in Britain to return to Ireland in 2003 and commit to politics. Served a political apprenticeship in local council and Seanad before getting promotion after the forced resignation of Lucinda Creighton in summer 2013.

He has spent recent weeks emphasising publicly and privately that he will not contest the leadership on this occasion. Some people think he may still be prevailed upon by former Kenny loyalists to upset an expected straight fight between Varadkar and Coveney.

Bookie Odds: 25/1

At Leinster House he is seen as a dark horse who might stand. Could be formidable contender if persuaded to change his mind. Former Kenny loyalists, especially those fearful one of the others would discard them from the ministerial team, would like to see him stand.

FRANCES FITZGERALD (66)

Career: Children’s Minister 2011-2014; Justice Minister 2014-present. First elected for Dublin South East in 1992, but defeated in 2002; Senator 2007-2011; elected for Dublin Mid-West in 2011 and again in 2016. Member of Dublin City Council 1999-2004.

The State’s first ever full cabinet member responsible for children’s affairs took two decades of hard battling to establish herself firmly in Irish politics. For a decade she represented Dublin South East – once the bailiwick of Fine Gael Taoisigh John A Costello and Garret FitzGerald – but completely lost her political footing here after 2002.

Rebuilt a base in Dublin Mid-West and has been very loyal to Enda Kenny as leader. Her work as Children’s Minister was well received and she was appointed as Justice Minister after the controversial resignation of Alan Shatter in May 2014.

Always cited as an outsider, her candidature has been impaired by the recent week’s controversial events. A popular politician, she is approachable and a good manager of people.

Bookie Odds: 25/1

At Leinster House she is seen at very best as a potential compromise or caretaker if others prove unduly divisive. Could expect former protégé Simon Harris to be supportive, if his unlikely candidature peters out. Unclear as yet who else would support.

SIMON COVENEY (44)

Career: Agriculture and Marine Minister 2011-2014; added Defence to those responsibilities 2014-2016; Housing Minister 2016-present. First elected to Cork South Central in a 1998 by-election and re-elected in four subsequent elections. Was an MEP from 2004 to 2007 and a member of Cork County Council (1999-2003).

Came to politics at age 26 by winning the by-election that followed the untimely death of his father Hugh Coveney. Took years to establish a reputation in his own right and was often perceived as “earnest and hardworking” rather than especially gifted. Proved his political nous as campaign director in several referendums, notably the 2015 same-sex marriage vote. Also helped negotiate the current coalition with Independents and the support deal with Fianna Fáil.

A farm manager by training, he impressed as Agriculture Minister, helped by the contrast between a buoyant farm sector and general economic woes. Acquitted himself in EU farm and fishery negotiations. As Defence Minister he backed the Irish Navy’s Mediterranean migrant rescue missions. Since the current government took office in May 2016, he has the tough task of tackling the housing crisis. Even militant critics acknowledge his commitment.

Bookie odds: 3/1

Seen as the real threat to Leo Varadkar’s success. Supporters are Damian English, Pat Breen, Joe Carey, and many in Munster and south Leinster area, though there are local rivalries, especially in Cork.

Read more: Enda Kenny under pressure to name date for departure

Read more: Kenny's dignified exit holds key to stability

Irish Independent

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