WITH Leo Varadkar crowned as the new leader of Fine Gael this weekend, his opponent for the job – and that of Taoiseach – Simon Coveney may feel somewhat hard done-by. However, Varadkar was the one who hit the ground running once Enda Kenny announced that he was stepping down as FG leader and his campaign had the early momentum to almost get him over the line before they went to the councillors and the general membership for their votes.
One has to wonder how many of the members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party who declared for the respective candidates immediately after the announcement had sought the approval of their constituency organisations before pledging their allegiances. We would guess very few of them, given that there was more support for Simon Coveney among the general party membership, as he won that electoral college by 65% to 35%.
But, with the parliamentary party having a weighting of 65% of the voting power and the balance divided between the councillors and general membership, Varadkar got into the pole position early on in the race – before any policy positions were outlined and any of the hustings debates had taken place – leaving his opponent from Cork constantly trying to play catch-up and the Dublin doctor emerging as winner on 60% to 40% overall margin. To Coveney’s credit, he fought to the bitter end and may even have caused some angst for members of the parliamentary party who jumped the gun with their early declarations of support for Leo.
However, there was some political naivety on Coveney’s part as regards the campaign. It emerged last weekend that the campaignforleo.ie website was registered at the start of September of last year – well before Enda Kenny first began to address his future as Fine Gael party leader.
While Coveney was taking on the difficult and probably ultimately thankless task of trying to tackle the housing and homelessness problems, Varadkar – in his less onerous Social Protection brief – seemed to have had a lot more time to plan for his coronation campaign and obviously had much more homework done before it officially started. No matter what one does in life, preparation is key and it seems that Coveney was well behind in that regard when Enda Kenny, at the end of his resignation announcement, declared ‘Let the games begin!’
Will the fact that Leo Varadkar was so far ahead with his planning make him a better leader of his party and of the country? In theory, the answer is yes, but a lot will depend on how he goes about it and how soon he would envisage a general election.
During the leadership campaign, it was felt that – on the back of an expected bounce in the opinion polls for the new leader – Varadkar would be more tempted to go to the country sooner to seek a fresh mandate for his party in a general election, whereas Coveney would be more likely to abide by the Supply and Confidence agreement that sees Fianna Fáil propping up the Fine Gael-led government. It is also felt that Varadkar will be much tougher in his dealings with Fianna Fáil than Coveney would have been, reprising the ‘good cop-bad cop’ roles they had during the negotiations on the formation of the government just over a year ago.
It would take a thick neck to go to the country in the immediate aftermath of the leadership contest, given the poor track record of the government up to now in bringing forward legislation and its slow rate of progress in tackling the many serious problems the country is facing. While the opposition parties, other than Fianna Fáil, will be baying for the new Fine Gael leader to go seek a mandate from the country’s electorate, there may not be much enthusiasm amongst the public for another general election, given the further political stalemate it could lead to, if recent opinion polls are to be believed.
The new leader will need to put his stamp on the Fine Gael party and set out a vision for the country as a whole that is realistic, practical and attainable. The plan must be tangible and have measureable goals; simply empathising by paying lip service to people’s problems – as had been Leo Varadkar’s wont in his ministerial portfolios up to now – will not be enough. Action is vital.
A Dublin-based Taoiseach will probably be a bigger help to Fine Gael’s wider political ambitions, given that the Fianna Fáil leader is from the ‘Real Capital.’ However, as Fine Gael learned to their cost in the 2016 general election, the benefits of the recovery need to be felt across the whole country and, now, they must ensure that the expected downside of Brexit does not hit rural Ireland harder than urban areas.