Opinion Columnists

Monday 22 July 2019

Team Varadkar delivers a masterclass in professional political campaigning

Leadership favourite's well-oiled campaign machine offsets his disappointing delivery, writes Philip Ryan

Minister Leo Varadkar and Minister Simon Coveney at the Fine Gael Hustings for the leadership of the party at the Red Cow Hotel in Dublin. Picture: Arthur Carron
Minister Leo Varadkar and Minister Simon Coveney at the Fine Gael Hustings for the leadership of the party at the Red Cow Hotel in Dublin. Picture: Arthur Carron
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Eoghan Murphy barely looked at the stage once throughout the first Fine Gael leadership husting in the Red Cow Hotel in Dublin.

Murphy, who is Leo Varadkar's campaign manager, was engrossed in his phone for the entire debate. He was furiously sending texts and WhatsApp group messages to his campaign team. Varadkar wasn't at his best on the night and Simon Coveney surprised many with his strong delivery and robust responses. The Varadkar team needed to be prepared for any fallout. And, as with all aspects of the Fine Gael leadership election, the Varadkar camp was prepared.

Once the final whistle was blown, Varadkar's TDs and advisers converged on the assembled press pack. They circled like hungry vultures all squawking the same message. It was intense. They insisted that they expected Coveney to come out fighting as he had been backed into a corner. A Cabinet minister dismissed Coveney's renewed vigour as mere "self-preservation".

Coveney's lack of content and policy during the questions and answers section was highlighted as a serious failing. They also criticised the Minister for Housing's attempt to attack Varadkar for being prepared for the leadership race. The same message was fed to any journalist who would listen. It was a masterclass in orchestrated and choreographed spin.

In fact, the entire Varadkar campaign has been a masterclass in political campaigning. Everything from the early ground work with the parliamentary party to their campaign video has been miles ahead of Coveney's team in terms of organisation and presentation.

Varadkar's speech at the husting was also carefully crafted to speak to certain sections of the party. He reached out to the outgoing leader's supporters: "when the history books are written, they will say that Enda Kenny gave Ireland back her future", and to councillors: "I think everyone who holds high office should spend some time on a local authority", and local organisers who "dropped leaflets, put up posters". He also used his own election failings to land a subtle dig on Coveney who took his father Hugh's seat after he died.

A soft copy of the speech arrived in journalists' inboxes as Varadkar began to speak and hard copy was handed to them at the same time. This was designed to ensure more of his quotes made the newspapers.

There was a clear effort by Varadkar to come across understated but at times he looked slightly awkward and uncomfortable. Coveney spoke from handwritten notes, which allowed him to inject more passion into his address. There was no copy of his speech for the media.

In preparation for the debate, Varadkar squared off against Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe in their campaign headquarters.

Questions were fired at the two ministers during practice debates and onlookers said they were happy Varadkar was not going up against Donohoe as he would have "cleaned the floor with him". At the Red Cow Hotel on Thursday night, some of Coveney's supporters insisted their man did little preparation because he was "speaking from his heart". In reality their preparatory work was done.

Health Minister Simon Harris was involved in some of the practice runs as was Minister for State Damien English. Prepared lines on looking after the homeless and Varadkar's attempt to drag Fine Gael to the right of the political sphere landed well. The barb of the night was from Coveney: "If I'm Taoiseach I'll remember Leo has unfinished business in health." Supporters say this was unprepared.

The second night of the hustings was better for Varadkar but not by much and he again failed to bring energy to his contributions. Before the debates Varadkar pushed to have the hustings aired on RTE but his supporters would be thankful that only about 1,000 people watched the leadership events on Facebook. Some in his inner circle hoped he would ramp up his delivery on the second night and were disappointed when his delivery was again an odd mixture of smugness and awkwardness.

Despite his lacklustre performances, Varadkar's well -oiled campaign machine has ensured his supporters have not faltered in the face of his underwhelming debating style. His attention to detail has also impressed party members.

Last week, he produced an entire document on how he would overhaul the party - this is something Coveney has not done or even really mentioned during the campaign.

Fine Gaelers who recently signed up to the Varadkar team say they are extremely impressed by the "uber professional" election campaign. The strategies and tactics put in place are a mix of an old-fashioned slog of face-to-face meetings mixed with the latest techniques of US political gurus. The campaign has bulldozed the Coveney camp in terms of canvassing members, releasing policy and developing strategy.

"If this is how we are going to run the next election it would be a dream; if we applied Coveney's strategy, Fianna Fail would murder us at the polls," one Fine Gaeler said.

Evidence of the Varadkar machine was evident from day one of the campaign when supporters appeared one after another on television and radio to pledge their allegiances.

This was no accident and took careful planning by those who pull the strings behind the minister. The hustings and various campaign events have revealed the Varadkar machine is powered by far more than just the minister. The evolving Varadkar camp is split into various cells or groups who all report back to Eoghan Murphy and Varadkar's special adviser Brian Murphy. There are groups dealing with policy, canvassing members and orchestrating the social media campaign. Below the generals are the lieutenants, including TDs John Paul Phelan, Michael D'Arcy and former TD Olwyn Enright, who insiders report is playing a significant role in the campaign.

TDs and senators have been asked to canvass councillors and members in their constituencies who are on the fence. Some have been successful in turning members. Varadkar currently has around 110 councillors compared to Coveney's 60 or so.

Last week rumours abounded that Coveney was reaching out to Varadkar supporters in the parliamentary party in an attempt to get them to change their allegiances. Most of those mentioned as possible turncoats dismissed the idea outright when contacted by the Sunday Independent. These included Minister of State Pat Breen and TDs Joe Carey, Peter Burke, Tom Neville and Ray Butler.

Some Varadkar-supporting TDs have said they have come under pressure from their constituents who believe they should be backing Coveney. However, in most cases this isn't enough to change their minds. Besides, publicly switching allegiance now would portray a career-ending level of treachery. One Varadkar-backing Cabinet minister said it was "quite insulting" of Coveney to suggest people would switch sides at this stage of contest.

Voting begins tomorrow and despite his impressive performance during the debates it is difficult to see how Coveney will now overcome Varadkar's campaign juggernaut at the polling booth.

Sunday Independent

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