Saturday 19 January 2019

Despite what they say, it was a good week for Leo

At the start of last week, Micheal Martin seemed like the lucky one, but in the end, it all worked out pretty well for Leo Varadkar too

Reshuffle: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with newly appointed ministers Heather Humphreys and Josepha Madigan, plus new Tanaiste Simon Coveney outside Government Buildings, Dublin Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Reshuffle: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with newly appointed ministers Heather Humphreys and Josepha Madigan, plus new Tanaiste Simon Coveney outside Government Buildings, Dublin Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

Does anyone else think Leo had quite a good week? As it ended, he was parading one-and-a-half shiny new female ministers and Micheal Martin was writing love letters to Europe about his best frenemy. Indeed, last week seemed to bring Micheal and Leo closer than ever. Shane Coleman and Stephen Collins, two shrewd commentators who don't mind standing outside the herd, were predicting the Government could last a lot longer than everyone else is assuming.

There's no doubt that Leo and Micheal seem more united after their first proper row. Even as the row went on over the course of last weekend, the rhetoric on either side was being slowly toned down, with Fine Gaelers, by last Monday, pulling back on accusations that Fianna Fail were just playing politics. Simon Coveney, in his now infamous appearance on Claire Byrne last Monday night, had gone from reckless condemnation of Fianna Fail to accepting their bona fides that all they were looking for was political accountability. Coveney was being mocked by the mob last Monday as a kind of Comical Ali figure for still staunchly defending Frances when everyone agreed her ship had already sailed after the additional emails that became public earlier that day. But, in fact, the internal party politics of Fine Gael were more important at that point and Coveney knew what he was doing.

The party stuck by Frances to the end and even after her fall. Even if she had retired without a scandal, the tributes paid to her, by those in her own party and even political opponents, could not have been warmer. This was, the message was clear, a decent, honourable woman, a great politician and well liked, and no one took any pleasure in her having to step down. But it had to be done. One of those unfortunate things. The rules of the game. She was greeted with a standing ovation by her own party at their first meeting after her retirement. No one seemed to have any urge to really stick the knife in, and Fine Gael almost got away with it - apart from Leo's assertion that Frances would be back at the top level of politics soon, which might have been pushing it a bit too much for some people. But nobody could argue with the fact that she could well get off on a technicality when she comes before Charleton in January.

In terms of Micheal and Leo and their numerous meetings and poring over documents over the weekend, it almost felt as if the two were working together, out of mutual self-interest, to find a way out of their impasse that would be acceptable to everyone and would result in no loss of face. It seemed as if the personal and party-political enmity we are told exists between the two was put aside and their common humanity, as politicians who don't want an election, came to the fore. They realised, it seemed, that they were not so different after all. Just a guy, standing in front of another guy, asking him not to have an election. You would almost think it gave them an esprit de corps, this goal congruence they suddenly understood. They both want the same thing - to survive, for now. And if last weekend had made anything clear it was that the public would thank neither of them for an election.

The next bit of neat footwork was that Fine Gael, and it seemed everyone else, were quick to make those faceless civil servants and their dysfunctional Justice Department the real villains of the piece. This was also presumably an effort to inoculate Charlie Flanagan against whatever comes down the tracks against him. He will just be another decent man, done down by unfortunate circumstances and by those nasty civil servants and the vastness of the Department of Justice.

And Leo not only managed to make his bond with his coalition partners who are not partners stronger. He also took the opportunity to rally his own party and to connect with the grassroots, only a third of whom had voted for him in the leadership election. Standing by Frances, even as it became increasingly obvious that she herself hadn't a leg to stand on, was a much-needed display of tribalism for anyone who thought Leo was too smart and too urbane to get his hands dirty with blind loyalty to the party.

It also meant that when Frances went, which ultimately she had to do after the second lot of emails, which Leo had known about since Friday, she went almost against Leo's will. He was practically clinging on to her leg, begging her not to leave. Much better optics than Leo, who has already been accused of not appointing enough women to Cabinet, being seen to fire a woman for political expediency. Imagine if Leo had fired her. Then he would have had to sit stony-faced through the outburst of grieving and admiration for her that the party indulged in all last week. And don't you know that some of them, in some way, would have blamed Leo once the dust settled. Who would remember the details of those emails? They would just remember that Leo, who didn't promote many woman, then fired one.

And the piece de resistance for Leo within the party? He got to round off the week on a feel-good note by having a mini reshuffle. Everybody is a sucker for people getting new jobs and palates were cleansed quickly of the bitter aftertaste of Frances. And Leo killed two birds with one stone. Not only were there two women to every one man reshuffled and promoted, he also got to wrap himself around his best friend forever, his most loyal sidekick, Simon Coveney. As much as everyone pointed out that making Simon Coveney Tanaiste was only Leo doing something he should have done in the first place, better late than never.

Wounds are now healed, the party is united, justice has been done. You'd almost wonder if Leo is thinking that he is better off without her. For a while, anyway.

The icing on the cake? The Brits were having a smear campaign against Leo. And as any US president will tell you, the best thing to do when there's trouble at home is go to war. And that's precisely what lucky Leo and stalwart Simon are doing now.

As much as at the start of last week, it seemed as if Micheal was the one who got lucky, Leo must be thinking this weekend, that, with the party, the grassroots, Fianna Fail and now the nation behind him, and without him getting his hands dirty at all, he had a very lucky week indeed. The mob who hounded Leo into office with no real examination of his suitability, are, of course, waiting to hound him out now, to move the narrative on. But it won't be happening just yet. Because possibly the most important thing that happened last week was that we all admitted to each other, that no one wants Leo or this Government to go anywhere for a while.

Sunday Independent

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