Wednesday 16 October 2019

This FG girl was too scared to love Leo, but all is forgiven

Varadkar need not worry - the grassroots will turn up to support him when he needs us most, writes Sarah Carey

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar

A friend of mine who was into astrology used to say, with an air of profound wisdom: "They crawl over each other to get to the Leos." The funny thing was that it seemed quite true; based on the Leos of our acquaintance.

And, sure enough, the Fine Gael parliamentary party members crawled over each other to get out there quickly and endorse their Leo; even though he's a Capricorn.

What struck the rest of us was the stark gap in support between the membership of Fine Gael and the parliamentary party. The people with the least information about the candidates overwhelmingly preferred Simon Coveney. What did this mean?

Naturally they have turned to this rural Blueshirt correspondent looking for answers. I think I've met each candidate once and exchanged little more than pleasantries. The ignorance of the membership is therefore one I share. We have nothing but instinct to guide us; liberated from personal conflicts and sympathies.

My various focus group sessions were interesting for those things that were said and those that were not. Of what was said, most validated the legions of work by behavioural economists and psychologists who tell us that humans are entirely irrational beings who base decisions on deeply entrenched bias and primal instincts, which we desperately seek to rationalise intellectually.

For my own part, when I tried to provide logical reasons for my preference for Simon, a Fine Gael grandee looked me in the eye and said: "Sarah, you're establishment. He's establishment." I love being caught out in my own cant and I laughed. It's true.

So there's that. Fine Gael people are conservative. I don't necessarily mean socially conservative or right wing, though that's the brand; but they prefer safety, or what Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times recently called the attractions of dull competency.

Simon is a prince of dull competency. And that's a compliment. Rock solid. Steady. Sure, he doesn't deal in one-liners or big promises, but that's the point. Humans fear betrayal aversion. Best not to put one's faith in one who'll disappoint. But for those who'd already chosen him, they were still thrilled to see him come alive at the hustings.

Leo's strong media performances were both his biggest asset and greatest source of anxiety. It's scary for those who've been let down in the past. What if it all disappeared once he got the job? Think of a girl with a broken heart too scared to love again. That's your average voter.

I also heard mutterings about his relentless manoeuvring behind Enda's back. I'd had the same grudge. Others were suspicious he wouldn't last the pace. "He'll be gone in two years if he doesn't get into power the next time." With a greater degree of calculation, a back-room organiser told me: "We lost 12 seats in Munster last time and they'll be got back easier than the Leinster seats."

What else? One member told me they made up their mind once they saw the parliamentary party roll out for Leo. That bugged them. "They gave us a vote and then tried to make us irrelevant. They should have held back and let us have our say." After that, nothing would budge them. I admire contrarians, so that's as rational as any other reason.

And everyone agreed, irrespective of the result, that Simon's insistence of making it a contest was fantastically energetic for the party. The members loved the hustings and the voting. It put a spring in their step and got them geared up for what one presumes will be an autumn election.

So, those are all the reasons that were stated. Just as interesting were those that weren't.

As I predicted back in February, Leo's identity was fairly irrelevant. It didn't occur to anyone I spoke to, or even myself, that he was half-Indian. I guess that's a product of his professional background. Class trumps race.

As for the sexuality, I've no doubt there were some for whom that was an issue but the number was so tiny as to be utterly immaterial. The best part of Leo being gay was watching poor Una Mullally in The Irish Times struggle with the concept that some people refuse to be defined by their sexual orientation. Who you sleep with doesn't require one to sign up to a set of ready-made political views.

Which brings me to actual political views. I kept reading in the headlines that Leo was a Tory because he said he wanted to represent people who got up early. Simon responded with what I know were sincerely held views on the power of social engineering to mitigate against class destiny. But no one I spoke to mentioned ideology.

That doesn't mean people don't care about policy; but rather speaks to the domination of centrist ideas irrespective of who's in power. The Tory label seemed like a contrived effort by the media to damn Leo, if you ask me. Lots of people get up early. Especially poor people.

In fact, the only time I heard policy mentioned by a member was to criticise Leo's un-Toryesque list of ­giveaway promises. As the party that cleans up the messes of Fianna Fail profligacy, you don't win over Fine Gaelers by promising money. Our lot expect disaster.

In the end, people were far more interested in character - as distinct from personality - rather than policy.

But leaving aside my personal research, I was most interested to see that the general public agreed with the members. In a number of polls, the non-Fine Gael public preferred Simon too. That conflicted with the certainty of Leo's supporters that he was the voters' choice.

Finally, I wondered why the parliamentary party - the people with the most information - sided so dramatically with Leo. When I inquired I got a clear answer from his early backers, as distinct from those who let no bandwagon go unjumped. It appears that Leo is a better politician.

He calls people and asks their advice. He kept in touch. Simon was more aloof. Was he like Obama - a politician who disdained politics?

If so, then the right ­decision was made. The key to political success is the ability to bring people with you and get deals done. If Leo can do that, then he should be well up to the job.

And he needn't worry about the members. They're delighted with the process and will turn up when the day comes.

Sunday Independent

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