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Fine Gael stands at the crossroads as competing visions vie for votes

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At odds: Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have radically different views on the future of Fine Gael. Photo: Collins Dublin.

At odds: Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have radically different views on the future of Fine Gael. Photo: Collins Dublin.

At odds: Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney have radically different views on the future of Fine Gael. Photo: Collins Dublin.

'You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time." So said US poet John Lydgate in words made famous by Abraham Lincoln. The words have never rang truer than in the current political environment - both domestically and internationally.

The populist 'me, me, me' demands from some sections of the electorate have resulted in the politics of the lowest common denominator. Guiding principles and values once held dear by political parties have been replaced with pandering to the most retweeted faux outrage de jour.

Focus groups and opinion polls dictate policy while political validation is measured by the number of pixelated thumbs up amassed on Facebook posts. Leadership and decision-making have been replaced with consensus by committee. Everyone is responsible for nothing. And don't forget it's your fault. You voted this way so you deserve what you got.

Hopefully you've learned your lesson and you'll make the right choice next time. That's what our political leaders are betting on anyway. The opinion polls do suggest the electorate's fling with Independent politicians is nearing an end and voters are ready to return to the loving embrace of the establishment parties.

But what are they coming home to and, now that they've experienced the exotic delights of voting for the unaligned, will they be able to re-adapt to the domestic familiarity of a traditional political party?

Will voters ever again accept the rule of law from a future government trying to impose taxes on them after the Irish Water debacle?

Can we expect a civil disobedience protest in Revenue offices if, say, the tax bands are narrowed in the next Budget, or will we march on RTE if the TV licence fee is increased? God forbid they try to introduce a broadcast charge.

This very debate will be played out in the Fine Gael leadership race. The two candidates - and there are only two candidates - will present two distinctly different visions for the future of Fine Gael to their party members when Taoiseach Enda Kenny decides to step down as leader.

It will be for the Fine Gael members to decide what form they want their party to take in the years ahead, but given they are still in Government - for the time being - it will affect us all.

Let's start with Leo Varadkar, the Social Protection Minister, who has been preparing for this contest for the best part of two years. Varadkar has known what he wants for himself, his party and the country - not necessarily in that order - for some time. His bid for power is calculated and cunning.

There have been hiccups along the way, some unforeseen and some avoidable. Nonetheless, when he eventually takes to a podium in a hotel conference room or local community centre and delivers his leadership spiel, it will be a speech well rehearsed.

We got a taste of it in a piece he penned for this newspaper in February.

"Fine Gael is for the Ireland that gets up early, the taxpayer, citizens who obey the law and are ambitious for themselves, their children and their communities. We represent people who don't expect the Government to do everything for them, but who do expect the Government to help them or get out of the way," he said.

He dismissed outright the idea of Fine Gael embracing social democracy in the way Fianna Fail has in recent years, and pointedly said he believes the country's future is not one based on a system of higher taxes and more government investment in public services.

Those working on the Varadkar campaign have given a clearer picture of where he would guide the party should he be given the reins. Policy would focus on the party's so-called 'core vote'.

The people who get up early in the morning and drop the kids off at school before going to work. The business owners who stay up late filing tax returns long after their children are tucked into bed. The people who take a two-week holiday on a campsite in Brittany during the summer and get away for a long weekend to New York on their own later in the year while the grandparents look after the kids.

They might not own a second home but they would like to invest in another property if there were additional resources in the family budget. Maybe after the children finish school.

They want things to look forward to. They are also generally liberal and are concerned about society at large but still want to know what's in it for them. What do they get in return for all their hard work and sacrifice?

Varadkar would focus on building a support base among the aspiring classes, those people who are willing to work hard to make a better life for themselves and their family. These people are all over Ireland but there is a concentration of voters who meet this criteria in Dublin and the surrounding Leinster areas.

This is where Fine Gael's vote held in the General Election and the party won two seats in most of these constituencies. The Varadkar plan would involve securing and expanding on this vote.

The minister and his advisers would be quick to say there is also a plan for rural Ireland, and regional development would be key to expanding the party in communities where people turned their back on Fine Gael in the last election. Or, more accurately, returned to Fianna Fail. However, increasing support in Dublin and Leinster would be central to securing the party's future under Varadkar.

The most recent Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown opinion poll showed that the gentle improvements in the economy are beginning to result in a more promising outlook among these voters.

Naturally enough, people in the higher socio-economic bracket (33pc) were more likely to say they are better off now than they were this time last year compared with those in the lower category (17pc).

Two in five (40pc) people living in Dublin said they were better off compared with last year. But this drops dramatically to just 15pc in the rest of Leinster and Munster. It rises to almost one in five (19pc) in Connaught/Ulster. Just one in ten (10pc) of farmers said they were better off. There were similar results when people were asked if they believed they would be better off next year.

However, people living in Leinster (21pc), Munster (23pc) and Connaught/Ulster (24pc) are more optimistic about the year ahead and believe they will be better off. Dublin remains the same on 40pc.

The point is the economy is improving, unemployment is continuing to fall and people are feeling better about things.

People are earning and spending money again and want a party that represents their views. These voters are the lifeblood of the economy and Varadkar wants to tap into their hopes and aspirations.

These voters are "some of the people" who Lydgate said can be "pleased". Varadkar does not believe the country needs another social democracy party, rather he is looking at the Christian democrat model favoured by more conservative European political parties.

There will be lots of talk about keeping the party centred, but commitments to take government out of people's lives and allow them spend their own hard-earned income rather than spend it for them shows Varadkar's Fine Gael will move to the right of the political sphere.

Varadkar's call last weekend to have child welfare payments linked to rates in the resident country of the children receiving the benefit was another preview of Fine Gael under his control. The policy would not be out of place in a Conservative Party or even UKIP election manifesto, and distinctly plays to prejudices of the middle classes.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney, on the other hand, has completely different plans for Fine Gael.

At a Fine Gael meeting in Kerry last month, the minister set out his vision for a Fine Gael which would leave no one behind.

"We have got to be a government and a party that represents everybody whether you are in social housing or a mansion, whether you are on a small, rough farm on a mountainside, or whether you are a big dairy farm growing and expanding, you have to be of interest to Fine Gael," he told party members.

He warned about the rise of populism and named checked the Anti-Austerity Alliance (or Solidarity as they now want to be called) and People Before Profit as political parties whose voters he hoped to attract.

He wants Fine Gael to become a catch-all political party that caters for everyone's needs. He wants to invest more money in infrastructure and services to meet the demands of the disenfranchised population, while still maintaining support among the party's core vote.

His view has possibly been moulded by his time working on the housing crisis which has given him a glimpse into the lives of those wandering between hotels or emergency accommodation centres.

It is also borne out of his fear of the far left and the unearthing of the old political norms over the past two years. The minister wants people who protested outside TDs' offices during the water charges fiasco to now come around to Fine Gael.

He wants people who are struggling to find work to see Fine Gael as a party that will give them a leg up, provide them with welfare when they are down in the dumps and reward them with lower taxes when they are working.

He wants to shake off the merchant prince image and instead be seen as the benevolent king providing for all his subjects.

Fine Gael offices and candidates would emerge in the more disadvantaged areas of the country and people on the lower socio-economic rungs would be listened to more carefully.

Catering for such a wide spectrum of society would be tricky, because, as Lydgate said, "you can't please all of the people all of the time".

Fianna Fail has done it at times but is finding it more difficult of late, as evidenced by the party's evolving stance on water charges. Coveney's vision, if it were to become reality, would see Fine Gael broaden its vote base and make the party less reliant on convincing Fianna Fail voters to come on board every few election cycles.

However, shaking off the elitist image some voters associate with Fine Gael would take some doing. And you can only really kill off the populists with populism, which would not sit well with the core Fine Gael vote.

Varadkar would argue there is no point in Fine Gael seeking to become all things to all people. The social democracy market is over-saturated and those who shoulder the burden during the recession are re-emerging and want to be rewarded for their sacrifices. These workers have no interest in the daily bleating of the left.

These taxpayers want to see their take-home pay increased, the traffic on their commute home eased and public services they pay for improved.

Varadkar's plan is a gamble on the continued recovery of the economy. Another financial downturn, possibly sparked by uncertainty around Brexit, could move in the public consciousness further towards the left.

Fine Gael would be more prepared for such an eventuality under Coveney's plan as inroads would have already been made in lower income areas.

The economy, as ever, will determine who can be pleased all of the time and who can be pleased some of the time.

Sunday Independent


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Vision: Potential future Taoiseach Simon Coveney believes housing is central to making Ireland a much happier place. Photo: David Conachy