Campaigners for Fine Gael leadership contenders play to their respective strengths

Contenders to succeed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael will in the coming days formalise campaigns; close off their inner circles; and put out their first messages.

Canvassing, money, stand-out policies, debates, campaign teams and of course the inevitable whiteboards will feature in the different leadership camps as candidates vie to win the title of Taoiseach.

Key supporters and campaigners for Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Simon Coveney, the two top contenders, have spoken to the Irish Examiner about initial plans.

Both teams have already done the numbers and have very different approaches in attempts to win a leadership vote when Mr Kenny formally outlines his resignation, as is now expected next month.

Sources close to Varadkar told the Irish Examiner to expect a campaign like one in a general election.

It is expected his team will move away from what has been considered a ‘phoney war’ and now focus on winning regional support, policies, debates and speeches and on who comes into the inner circle.

Those close to Varadkar point to his differing views and priority issues to Coveney which will set him out as a stronger and more modern politician. 

These include his position on abortion, the laws for which he previously said were far too restrictive. Coveney, on the other hand, has said politicians should not be pushed into expressing their views on this in public.

Those watching the Coveney camp are also conscious of the large amounts of money he spent during his campaign in the 2004 European elections and are not ruling out the Cork man doing the same this time when it comes to resourcing teams of campaigners, social media, transport or other spends during the inevitable hustings.

Both teams are clear about the Fine Gael numbers game — which is that 73 Fine Gael parliamentarians command 65% of a leadership vote, some 25,000 members will get a ballot paper which amounts to 25% of the total, while 234 party councillors then make up the remaining 10% of the tally.

In Varadkar’s camp, junior finance minister Eoghan Murphy is seen as a key strategist. For Coveney, junior housing minister Damien English is cited as his potential campaign manager.

On Coveney’s team, there is a focus on gaining support of the membership, a quarter of the leadership vote. This could bring Coveney over the line, in what is now viewed as a close race between the two.

“Members will be told they are essentially electing a Taoiseach. This will feel special,” said a strong parliamentarian supporter of Coveney.

In the Coveney camp, the suggestion is Varadkar is good on message and soundbites but Coveney has done the work and has the record. This may be key during the leadership hustings.

Coveney’s team point to his record as minister for agriculture, his ambition and initiative in his current housing portfolio, his success during the programme for government talks with the Independents and his more stable manner than Leo Varadkar during those negotiations.

The Coveney camp want to keep things more low key.

“It will be a Seanad-style election race, hitting doorsteps for personal votes and a lot of tea but away from the media. It may be a media flop, especially if around Easter away from Dublin,” said a Coveney supporter.

The extra few weeks before Enda Kenny comes back from the US and resigns, as is now expected, is also seen as a huge advantage for the Coveney camp, who admit they still have to play catch up and get their message out.

Sources on both sides also do not expect a serious challenge from any possible third or fourth candidate, such as Health Minister Simon Harris or Richard Bruton.

But their support could be instrumental in a final vote. We have a taoiseach but the race to succeed him is on.


Working Life: Dr Carl Fagan, consultant in intensive care medicine, Beacon Hospital, Dublin

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