Sunday 8 December 2019

Analysis: The scars of heaves past weigh upon Leo and Simon - but have they learned?

'Big' Phil Hogan. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
'Big' Phil Hogan. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Fionnán Sheahan

Fionnán Sheahan

Tears rolling down his face and being consoled by a colleague, Leo Varadkar stood in the lobby of Leinster House.

On a sunny day in June, the post-match analysis of the failed leadership heave had finished.

Suddenly, for a fellah who is so often accused of being socially awkward, he let all the emotion out.

After a gruelling 10 days, all Fine Gael's business on Enda Kenny's leadership had been settled decisively and the vanquished were facing an uncertain future in the party, with the wilderness beckoning.

Earlier that morning, Mr Varadkar had been involved in an argument with fellow rebels, most notably Billy Timmins, over who would man-mark Big Phil Hogan at the epic parliamentary party meeting.

Mr Hogan was Kenny's consigliere, who had run a deft campaign against seemingly impossible odds.

Mr Varadkar was identified as the man to neutralise his impact during the speeches, with others backing him up.

Mr Hogan surprisingly didn't speak at the meeting, thereby catching his adversaries off guard. After his victory, he rubbed it in, mischievously suggesting to the rebels that he had known their strategy.

How Mr Hogan subsequently discovered this was the tactic in mind has often been the source of speculation.

Over the course of the heave, Big Phil had an uncanny ability to garner insider intelligence on his opponent's strategy. Among the theories doing the rounds was a mole in the camp. The fingers of blame were pointed at Simon Coveney, who many felt was playing both sides during the heave and positioning himself as a compromise candidate.

Mr Coveney has always denied being the mole, but the accusation has stuck among some in the party. The mixed messages he has put out in recent days has certainly echoed with his approach.

After taking the leap of faith by collaborating with Mr Varadkar to call for discussion on Fine Gael general election preparations, thereby giving Mr Kenny the push, he has ebbed and flowed.

He has gone from calling for Mr Kenny to be given faith to directly attaching a timescale to the departure.

"He went out to do the statesman act. He implicitly criticised Leo for looking for a timeline and then set one for the end of March. It was a bit like his 'Prime Time' interview on the water charges after the general election," a minister said.

Mr Varadkar is scarred by the failed heave of 2010. But has he learned from it?

Where he has a weakness is on the experience of his team. John-Paul Phelan played a prominent behind-the-scenes role in 2010. But most of his close team have no experience of leadership heaves or elections.

"He needs a few henchmen. This is senior hurling and Simon will have those people," a party source said.

At this stage, Mr Kenny has until Wednesday to kill off a motion of no confidence.

In the absence of a clear statement of intent, he will doubtless face a heave.

A number of anti-Kenny TDs are still waiting in the long grass too.

There is some sympathy within the party organisation for his plight.

Grass-roots members, who do not want to see the departure being forced by a heave, will influence the views of Fine Gael TDs and senators.

This is an advantage for Mr Kenny.

But the parliamentary party is not always in step with the public mood.

Loyalists are bemused by Mr Kenny's behaviour and wonder who he is listening to.

Mr Kenny's corps of confidantes has been decimated.

Frank Flannery is gone.

Mr Hogan is gone.

Andrew McDowell is gone.

He has drifted away from a number of long-time allies in the parliamentary party.

His Chef-de-Cabinet Mark Kennelly is often in attendance at Fine Gael parliamentary party meetings, sitting up the front row, in the eyeline of his boss.

"He doesn't even need to send messages. You'd swear they had sign language," a party backbencher observed.

His absence from last week's parliamentary party, where Mr Kenny had to explain his mishandling of the Sergeant Maurice McCabe affair, was noted by several TDs.

Mr Kenny no longer commands the loyalty of a large chunk of the party. There won't a be a queue of people wanting to defend him as his popularity with the voters is on a low ebb.

Once he announces a departure date, he is gone anyway as he'll be a lame duck in the public mind.

In the meantime, Fine Gael is again managing to portray itself as a bunch of amateurs.

The dithering over the heave has been compounded by the internal chatter and positioning, which is proving enormously damaging to the party's reputation.

The carry on yesterday with Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan suggesting Health Minister Simon Harris was colluding with Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald to position himself for the leadership as he wanted out of the Department of Health was jaw-dropping,

"He hasn't announced yet but Frances is encouraging him. He wants out of Health," a text to party colleagues said.

Mr Harris was justifiably angry about the comments and was straight out to deny it. However, having a senior Cabinet minister saying that about a colleague is a bad signal to the public at large.

And why would you want someone running the country who is afraid to tackle the Department of Health and the HSE?

Party colleagues are none too impressed.

"They are behaving now like a bunch a young lads after doing the mock Junior Certs and wondering who is going to shift who at the weekend: 'Will you score with my friend.'

"It's a serious issue and it's like it's a kiddies disco. It looks awful and the whole country is talking about it. To have this amateur hour is terrible. We'll be at 14pc the way things are going. The whole thing is becoming a bit unseemly," a party TD noted.

Irish Independent

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