The Taoiseach didn’t just misread the room — he wasn’t even in the same neighbourhoodas people of political experience, says Alison O’Connor.
It is quite the achievement to have, in one fell swoop, annoyed the hell out of, and utterly bewildered, your Cabinet, your TDs and senators, your party faithful, the party on whom you rely on for your survival in government, and the public.
Not to mention blasting your political judgement and capital right out of the water.
If there is one thing this young man in a hurry has not lacked to date, it is confidence; but surely even his robust ego has suffered a significant dent.
It has to be hoped that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar does reflection well, because right now there is much for him to reflect on. He has just overseen a political car crash.
The whole sorry episode has shown up serious shortcomings in his leadership approach. Senior colleagues speak of him being surrounded by “yes men” in his kitchen cabinet and that even the singular voice telling him that Minister Frances Fitzgerald simply had to go was ignored.
Apparently Cabinet colleagues did not pick up the phone over the weekend to tell him that she had to go, even though that is exactly what they thought.
The last Fine Gael TDs remembered after their parliamentary party meeting on Thursday night, was the unanimous vote of support for the then Tánaiste, led by the Taoiseach.
After that they all disappeared back to their constituencies to go on local radio stations and support her.
This continued right up to late Monday night when Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney appeared on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Show continuing the charade, and doing his boss’s bidding.
The image of him staring down the camera from the Cork studio defending the, by then, long past politically indefensible, will linger.
Frances Fitzgerald sat at Cabinet yesterday with her colleagues, while other, far more mundane matters were dealt with; after around 40 minutes, as the last item on the agenda, the Taoiseach called on her to speak.
According to estimates, she spoke for around 10 minutes. Her initially spirited self-defence, as she “outlined the facts”, including letters she had received from Maurice McCabe, meant colleagues were unsure whether she was actually going to resign or not.
There wasn’t much sympathy around the table for Frances Fitzgerald but even she, one or two say, had taken at face value Leo’s assurances that he backed her and did not wish her to stand down.
Others were less charitable and would talk about how “calculating” the former tánaiste is. “You’d never really know where you stand with Frances. She should have known it was time to go over the weekend.”
The political reality is, of course, that she should have gone last Friday and, in retrospect, there are none of those colleagues that will tell you differently. She did Fine Gael and her Taoiseach great damage, but he stands shoulder to shoulder with her in terms of culpability.
It was all so devoid of a sane explanation that people began to wonderyesterday morning what “hold” did Frances possibly have over Leo.
On the day of his election as Fine Gael leader, I had heard he had a particular fondness for her as he had done a work placement with her years ago, beginning his time in politics.
In fact, the same source said that at the key meeting before his leadership bid, when Frances Fitzgerald might have been expected to tell him she would back him provided he made her tánaiste again, she never even had to make that request. He told her he would reappoint her without being asked.
His colleagues, to put it mildly, remained perplexed yesterday.
“We don’t understand why he was expressing absolute confidence in her. You either back someone to the hilt or you give them the signal. He didn’t give her the signal,” said one senior FG source.
You’d have to wonder did Frances Fitzgerald have her fingers crossed when she dictated this particular paragraph in her resignation statement:
“I would like to thank the Taoiseach for showing the same courage and determination to protect my good name that he displayed three years ago when he stood-up and defended the reputation of Maurice McCabe. What I admire most about the Taoiseach is that he has always believed in doing what was right — not what was popular or politically expedient.”
This sorry episode gets right to the heart of what might be Leo’s fatal political flaw. There is no doubting his brightness, or his ability to frame a vision.
One supporter insisted yesterday: “He has a great vision for Ireland and he’s the only one that can make it happen.”
But Mensa membership will only get you so far in politics. Perhaps more important is your ability to read a room. Leo so misread the room this time, that he wasn’t even in the same neighbourhood as people of political experience.
“I think Leo had started to believe his own hype,” reflected another experience party member.
“Despite what he said about not wanting an election he did seem to think that having one now would actually favour him, that it was his best chance, which frankly seems delusional. “It may be no bad thing that his confidence is dented, although that takes some doing!”
So Leo Varadkar is six months in and has already lost a tánaiste, and in the process given himself a virtually self-administered political scalping. None of the senior colleagues who voted for him in June would have begun to imagine such an epic cock-up like this occurring.
However, what has happened does go to the heart of the reservations they would have had about his personality and leadership skills. In the event, they decided that his intelligence and “rock star” quality eclipsed those reservations.
That’s what they will be mulling over now, and hoping there has been learning, not to mention humility, in all of this for Leo.
Once the immediate crisis had passed yesterday, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said on the News at One that “as a government we need to move forward”.
Indeed. But this is a very different Government to the one it was this day last week. It is now older, wiser and seriously damaged. Fianna Fail, looking over at them, has the smug satisfaction of being on the high moral ground.
He had to steer a very tricky course on this, but leader Micheál Martin managed to pull it off with panache. Despite all the stilted pleasantries exchanged between them yesterday in the Dáil the general election preparations will continue apace.
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