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Fine Gael spoilt for choice - but a spiteful contest will turn electorate off and leave the party divided

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Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar arriving at Leinster House for a Cabinet meeting yesterday Photo: Tom Burke

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar arriving at Leinster House for a Cabinet meeting yesterday Photo: Tom Burke

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar arriving at Leinster House for a Cabinet meeting yesterday Photo: Tom Burke

There are few more unedifying sights in politics than a leadership contest. First off, there's the excruciating stuff the candidates have (or feel they have) to do - 'coffee or a 5km run anyone? Oh and, by the way, you have met my family, haven't you?'

And then there's the desperate moves of those trying to ensure they're on the right team - with some of the most senior party figures, who really should be a little more dignified, among the worst offenders.

It is the political equivalent of the passengers on a distressed ship scrambling for the few remaining places on the lifeboat. Or, on a lighter note, young children playing musical chairs. Nobody wants to be left standing (or worse, sitting in the wrong chairs) when the music stops playing, so sharpen those elbows.

Would any of us be any different if our careers hung in the balance? Probably not. But Fine Gael likes to present itself as the party that puts duty to the State before party politics. Not much sign of that this past week. It's been less 'national interest' and more 'Italian job'. Remember the lyrics from the film's closing song - 'this is the self-preservation so-ci-ety'.

The late John Kelly famously said Fine Gael couldn't walk past a sleeping dog without feeling the need to give it a kick. And, unless, it is very careful, the party is in danger of turning a serious asset into a liability.

In Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney, Fine Gael has two seriously impressive candidates. They're both young, photogenic, earnest and highly intelligent. They are also offering different visions of what they want for the country. The party is actually spoilt for choice.

But common sense needs to prevail to ensure things don't get ugly, leaving the party divided and the electorate turned off.

The two men are going to be the two most senior figures in the next government. Sniping at each other over the next week or so - and there's been a fair bit of it already - is not conducive to harmony once the contest is over.

Some of the people around them have not covered themselves in glory - with the "choir boys" who are "singing for their supper" outburst from first-time TD Kate O'Connell being the most egregious example.

Credit has to be given for the way the Varadkar campaign has been masterminded. But there's a need for caution and sensitivity too. It wants to win, of course, but not to the point of humiliating its opponents. It looked for a while last weekend like the contest would be abandoned, such was the stampede to Mr Varadkar when TDs sensed what way the wind was blowing. That would have been a big mistake.

There are already rumblings of discontent from the grassroots at the way some members feel the contest has been sewn up by the parliamentary party without even a nod in their direction. Robbing members of the chance to listen to the arguments of the two candidates and cast their vote would have been hugely disempowering for an organisation already seriously hierarchical.

The intervention of the ever wily Michael Noonan headed off that possibility. Mr Noonan understands that it's the grass roots that will be needed to knock on doors and put up posters at some point in the next 24 months. They need to be heard.

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The Varadkar campaign must be mindful. Even allowing for a possible grassroots backlash against the presumptuousness of ministers and TDs, the Social Protection Minister is surely home and hosed. But his team must be seen to be magnanimous. Talk of demoting talented ministers such as Simon Harris and Damien English for daring to back Mr Coveney looks spiteful. If the word coming back about the reception being given to Mr Coveney by ordinary members is even half accurate, then Mr Varadkar will need to keep his main rival sweet if and when he takes the leadership.

Mr Coveney's camp, meanwhile, needs to avoid carping at what it sees as the injustice that has befallen it. Clearly it was sold a pup by some Fine Gael TDs who misled it about their intentions. But that's politics. All's fair in love and leadership contests. It's not personal - strictly business.

The Housing Minister's own digs at Mr Varadkar - including his "I don't try to look for an easy job so I can canvass for another job" line - are uncharacteristically snippy.

The suspicion has always been that Mr Coveney has wanted the top job more than most people realised. But he has to play the long game. It's worth remembering that the last two Fine Gael taoisigh - Enda Kenny and John Bruton - lost the first leadership battles they contested.

There are already lessons for Mr Coveney from what has happened. He is a politician of real substance. For this writer at least, his approach to the 'Ireland 2040' national planning framework - which attempts to address the planning mistakes brought about by decades of political cowardice - is as impressive as anything produced by a minister over the past 30 years.

But there's no doubt that Mr Varadkar has been a lot cuter in his approach to the contest. His blitzkrieg approach to the contest worked perfectly, creating an unstoppable momentum for his campaign. If Mr Coveney is arguably stronger on policy, the Social Protection Minister is the better communicator. His message this week that he wanted to represent "those people who got up early in the morning" was inspired.

Much of the media will tut-tut and the unions will, in archaic fashion, denounce him as Thatcherite. Let them. It will strike a chord with large sections of the electorate who feel, with some justification, they have to pick up the tab for everything. It will also put Fianna Fáil on the back foot. Does it compete with Fine Gael for the private sector middle class vote or slug it out with Labour and Sinn Féin for what's left of the electorate?

For the first time since February last year, Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil will have something to think about. But, even allowing for the inevitable honeymoon that Mr Varadkar will enjoy as the new taoiseach, there are no guarantees for FG.

Senior figures are delighted with the rich pickings they have for the leadership. But they were similarly impressed with themselves at the beginning of 2011 and look what happened. It's far from certain the electorate will share their assessment, particularly if what transpires over the coming days is perceived as an arrogant coronation or a mean spirited and spiteful contest.

Cool heads need to prevail in both camps and it's up to Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney to set the appropriate tone - not in the national interest, but the party's.

Shane Coleman presents 'Newstalk Breakfast' weekdays from 7am


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