When Leo Varadkar got to his feet in the Dáil taking Leaders Questions in April, filling in for Enda Kenny, some of his closest allies realised this very well could be the next Taoiseach, writes Juno McEnroe.
For months, there had been hushed late-night conversations in bars close to Leinster House; the subtle testing of tacit support among Fine Gael parliamentarians but also a growing band of faithful followers, particularly among younger politicians, who had pledged loyalty to the Dublin West TD.
Momentum was building for Leo.
Fast-forward to the week before the gun was officially fired to start the party leadership race. Varadkar’s campaign were putting final touches to what will now surely go down as one of the most military-like precision leadership campaigns in Irish political history.
Members of the parliamentary party on the Varadkar team had been given specific jobs. These included “shepherding” specific members’ votes and talking to those who had yet to decide. The idea was that one team strategist was given a number of names and would have to get them across the line, an aide confirmed.
“It was based on personal relationships, who you were friendly with, not geography, in the context of sounding out. It was a question of gathering info, and then unleashing Leo,” confided a strategist.
There were seven to eight core team players in the Varadkar camp. These included the brains in the operation and Varadkar’s chief adviser Brian Murphy, an experienced Fine Gael stalwart. Then his campaign director, junior finance minister Eoghan Murphy, who ran the military-like campaign. Then there was friend and long-time ally Carlow-Kilkenny TD John Paul Phelan; loyal media adviser Nick Miller; as well as former Laois-Offaly TD Olwyn Enright. Enright, who bowed out of politics for family reasons in 2011, played a key role contacting the grassroots.
Everything was worked on by the team, including the right pitch, the right image and most importantly the right policies. A key slogan that covered the Varadkar campaign was that he wanted to represent people who ‘get up early in the morning’. It was Leo Varadkar himself and Brian Murphy who agreed on this. Most policy detail was written by Varadkar himself, say supporters.
A significant win for the Varadkar campaign was when Education Minister Richard Bruton came out backing the social protection minister to be leader at the outset. The former leadership hopeful called a snap press conference on the first day and decided to come out early with his preference.
“It was when it happened, he was unprovoked and the announcement was key in getting on board others,” said a team member.
It had been speculated Bruton may have sided with Coveney.
“It added the to the momentum and then it was unstoppable,” contended a Varadkar source.
But it was not always that easy for Team Leo. One story abounds of how one Saturday night just before the race a sleepless JP Phelan got in his car at 1am and drove to Malahide, where he met key adviser Brian Murphy.
“The two stayed up until after 4am drinking tea, while JP smoked, going through it, scribbling and talking, about managing it, the shepherding [of votes], the pitch for Leo,” confided a close aide.
There were long nights, the scratching of heads and at times, concerns. Members of Varadkar’s inner circle admit he was fearful of his personal life getting caught up in the election contest and of any focus on his partner Matthew Barrett. “It did worry him,” said a source.
But, despite all the attention being on how organised the Varadkar team were, the team had no special What’s App group or fussy social networking strategy for corralling the team.
“It was just ol’ school, plain texts or hitting the phones,” described a source.
But it is important to go back to that time between when Varadkar sat in for Enda Kenny during those Dáil Leaders Questions in early April, before his team rounded up the flock of parliamentary votes in the race in the weeks ahead.
That Leaders Questions, on Thursday, April 6, is a moment when other observers, including the media, openly commented how an emboldened Varadkar had shown mettle and leadership when he took on Fianna Fáil TDs staring at him across the chamber floor.
For months, Fine Gael TDs, particularly the defiant younger ones, had felt beaten up and taken advantage of, as they watched Fianna Fáil slowly gaining incremental rises in polls.
Varadkar struck a nerve by mocking both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil in one fell swoop. On his feet, he told the other side: “The party of [Sean] Lemass, which was once proud to stand up for things and would do the right things by the Irish people, now determines its policy on water solely out of its fear of Deputy [Paul] Murphy and of Sinn Féin,” declared Varadkar. He later added: “It is a sad thing to see a party such as Fianna Fáil reduced to the position it is in now.” It was a smart attack, silencing some opposition Fianna Fáil TDs and aggravating others.
The irony, of course, was there was the social protection minister fighting off attacks on water, while sitting directly beside him in the chamber was Simon Coveney, the man responsible for overseeing the toxic bills who later would try to rip the leadership crown out of his Leo Varadkar’s hands.
Varadkar’s leadership election campaign was indeed a ‘shock and awe’ blitzkrieg that blew the Simon Coveney offensive off the pitch. But this wasn’t political warfare on the march. Only more time will likely reveal how not just Leo Varadkar but his supporters also had their eye on the office of Taoiseach and the keys to the government, not just for months, but potentially for the last few years.
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