Tuesday 28 January 2020

Leo out of blocks in race to replace Kenny - but he'll only get one shot

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar Photo: Tom Burke
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar Photo: Tom Burke

Gerard O'Regan

Shhh... We've got to really try and listen. Strain our ears. Read the signs. Something has been afoot in the undergrowth during these surprisingly sun-dappled October days. There are so many things we can't see. But we can try and pick up the signals from hidden happenings.

Politics is often just a question of toddling along. One day blending into the next, and a deceiving sense of calm in the air. But one should never forget - stuff is always happening out of view.

And so with all that in mind, let us say that, as of now, Leo Varadkar is one to watch. There is no doubt he has left the starting blocks in the race to try and replace Enda Kenny.

We hear stories of him sharing a pizza, or having a glass of beer, with some middle-ground Fine Gael deputies. All pretty innocent stuff. But not really. These days, he has the look of a man who won't - who can't - wait around forever.

It's something Enda and his politburo have to watch. Deep in the political undergrowth, where we can't fully observe what's happening, there is no doubt both men are closely circling one another. Kenny must be ever watchful as to when the challenger might make his move.

Leo has been making some carefully choreographed sound-bites of late. There cannot but be a feeling his campaign has, however surreptitiously, moved up a notch or two. No doubt he is regularly doing the numbers in his head - as indeed is Enda. But when it comes to heave-ho time, will the challenger have enough backers to take out the leader should it come to a full face-off between both men?

It all means the Taoiseach cannot relax his defences for even an instant. Such is the reality at this point in his life, as the cruel trade of politics exacts its all too often heavy price. It's a bit unfortunate for somebody in the swansong of a not inconsiderable political career, that they have to be so much on their guard. If the gods were in any way reasonable, Enda Kenny should be given time to enjoy a period when in many ways he is at the height of his powers. After all, there is, as he is wont to regularly remind us, the many and varied conundrums surrounding the whole Brexit issue.

However, this instinct to cleave towards matters of foreign affairs is not unusual for an elder head of state, who has to put up with all sorts of grubby machinations on the home front. There is obvious relief in getting away from what must often seem like tawdry parochialism, to the consolation and satisfaction to be found striding through the corridors of power in Brussels and such places, with the likes of Merkel, Hollande and May.

After all, attending to important matters of state provides a much greater sense of purpose compared to having somebody whispering in your ear that Leo has been seen nibbling at a pizza and chatting to a FG backbencher in some obscure Dublin restaurant.

Yet the lessons of Margaret Thatcher's final months in power will not be lost on the Taoiseach. The Iron Lady succumbed to the tempting allure of matters on the international stage, while her enemies were sharpening their knives back at base. Indeed Mrs Thatcher was waxing lyrical at a meeting of world leaders in Paris when the news came through she was finally done for as prime minister.

So when will Leo strike? Enda's great strength is that he knows Varadkar will only get one clean shot at unseating him if it comes to a straight fight. Making a move at the wrong time could be disastrous for the Social Protection Minister. But if he leaves things too late, it may even mean Paschal Donohoe coming up on the outside.

Meanwhile, it seems that Leo's leadership ambitions have the capacity to make Micheál Martin and some of his frontbenchers just a little bit jumpy. It's almost as if there is a nascent fear he just might inject some mysterious vim into FG, frustrating Fianna Fáil from getting the numbers to form a government after the next election.

That election looks like being another knife-edge battle with all sorts of hook-ups necessary to try and get Martin elected as Taoiseach. But any kind of significant turnaround in Fine Gael's electoral fortunes in the interim - possibly spawned by having a new head honcho - could mean that Fianna Fáil's best laid plans will come unstuck.

Facing down yet more years in opposition would be a veritable nightmare for the party, following on from its obvious frustrations in the current Dáil, where it cannot function as a proper cutting-edge political unit. As things stand, it must 'kinda' support Kenny and 'kinda' oppose him. The FF front bench is bogged down in too many pointless and phoney skirmishes.

This inability to really get stuck in and go for the jugular of the Government leaves it in danger of becoming atrophied.

So what's to happen? We can but try and listen to those stirrings in that deep undergrowth - some of which will come to the surface sooner rather than later.

Irish Independent

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