The O’Connell Suite (named, presumably, after the Liberator Daniel, rather than Fine Gael’s fiery deputy Kate) in the Red Cow Hotel had never seen anything like it.
There was a polite but fierce ground war raging inside and outside the hall. Simon’s black-and-yellow busy bees were distributing stickers, banners, and T-shirts to arriving party members.
Leo’s rainbow warriors clad in their carefully co- ordinated tops were also handing out stickers, banners, and T-shirts.
But the latter had also evidently pored over sheets of isobars and, noting the sweltering weather, had trestle tables of Leo water for one and all.
No water charges here, friends.
But Simon’s propaganda machine had been active too, and every one of the 800 seats was decorated with a copy of a 12-page newspaper titled The National Leader, which consisted entirely of approving articles about the Housing Minister. (If Carlsberg did newspapers, wistfully thought every politician who perused it.)
The publication also had some cheeky horoscopes at the back. The star sign Leo carried the warning: “Your charisma may get you into trouble in the near future, be wary of becoming all bluster and no substance, this may be your downfall.”
Ominous. Perhaps it was just coincidental that Taurus was advised: “Don’t be taken aback by the recent dramatic turn in events in your life, embrace the change and try to go with the flow.”
Doubtless Enda will be grateful for the advice.
Of course, timing is everything in politics. The news headlines had been dominated all day by revelations that there hadn’t been room at any inn anywhere for several homeless families in Dublin earlier this week. Tough for the housing minister, Simon Coveney, horrible for the roofless citizens.
Not, perhaps, the best preparation for the first of a quartet of hustings where both men are battling to convince the 21,000-strong Fine Gael membership that he is the best leader for the party, and also, through a live-stream of each event on Facebook, to offer a preview of our next taoiseach.
But then, minutes before the first of the hustings kicked off last night, a newspaper poll popped up which showed Simon to be the preferred party leader by 42% to Leo’s 37%. (And the publication wasn’t The National Leader).
It was the first indication that this contest isn’t quite as straightforward as it first seemed when Leo sprinted from the blocks like a starving greyhound. It was bound to give an extra bite to the four public debates.
Perhaps Simon had stolen a few leafs out of his rival’s playbook. For at the end of the candidates’ opening addresses, it was clear the Corkman had won the Clap-o-Meter, garnering the loudest cheers from his supporters. Whether it was all perfectly spontaneous or co-ordinated in advance was anyone’s guess.
And in keeping with his game-plan, for the opening speeches which were about 12 minutes in length, Leo read from his script while Simon spoke off-the-cuff and without notes.
The temperature in the stifling room soared, but both combatants were determined not to boil over, no matter what the provocation — and provocative digs were exchanged as both of them peeled off their jackets and got stuck in.
Jabs flew about the difference in forward planning for this campaign.
“That preparation was going on for about 12 months, from what I understand,” sniffed Simon regarding Leo’s meticulous strategies. “I had a bad start, no doubt about it, for the first 48 hours,” he added contritely.
Leo was having none of those insinuations that he was dossing in his Social Protection office, protecting his chances by ringing councillors and members for a whole year in advance.
“I began preparing in February when the taoiseach announced he was stepping down,” he retorted.
There were questions from the floor on a wide range of issues, but both candidates dealt with them without sweating any more than the room temperature demanded.
This is the first party leadership contest of this sort to take place; one veteran political reporter mused how such a rumble between Fianna Fáil hardmen Charlie Haughey and George Colley would’ve worked out, back in the day.
Probably with both of them swinging digs at the each other. Chandeliers shattered. Shiny suits ripped.
But at the end of the day, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney are well brought- up chaps. This is a conversation, not a cage fight. It’s FG, not UFC.
Who won? Both sets of supporters claimed victory, of course. It might take a real ding-dong over the coming three bouts to choose a clear winner.