This week, the Irish Examiner Political Team — Juno McEnroe, Fiachra O Cionnaith, Elaine Loughlin, and Daniel McConnell — have endeavoured to pin down where support within the 73 members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party is likely to go once votes are cast.
“Who is your man backing” and “what about your one there” — these are the kind of questions on the lips of most along the corridors of power since last week.
Quiet conversations in corners of the canteen over tea in recent days have been dominated by the conversation about how many votes Simon Coveney will have over Leo Varadkar and vice-versa.
Now that Taoiseach Enda Kenny has signalled his intention to go after St Patrick’s Day, the game is afoot.
In the weeks ahead, both teams will be agonising while trying their best to navigate a path to the highest political office in the land.
Discussions with the main camps and individual TDs, mixed with our own analysis, have been combined to give today’s results.
While officially the race is not yet under way, the contenders have already left the starting line.
With Junior Minister Eoghan Murphy acting as de facto campaign manager for Varadkar and Junior Minister Damien English assuming responsibility for the Coveney camp, the head counts have begun.
In the corridors and the offices of Leinster House, lists of various types have been compiled by the teams.
They have been adjusted, updated, and corrected day after day in the hope of trying to ascertain where they can count on support.
In compiling our figures, the big assumption we are making is that it will be a two-horse race between Coveney and Varadkar. While there is some talk of other contenders putting their hat into the ring, in reality it is down to the doctor from Castleknock and the Merchant Prince of Cork.
We have discussed matters with members of both teams and they of course both put their man in the lead.
For their part, Varadkar’s team believe they have a margin of between six and ten on Coveney, with about a dozen or so party members undecided.
One source in the Varadkar camp told the Irish Examiner they believe their lead is 35 to 25.
Some of Coveney’s people, feel it is 38-31 to them, with three too difficult to call.
We here in the Irish Examiner, as of now, see it closer to the Coveney figures than the Varadkar ones.
According to our calculations, Coveney is in the lead on 37 votes to Varadkar’s 30, with six undecided.
What is certain is that Coveney’s vote is a good deal stronger than many, even within Fine Gael, would have given him credit for even four weeks ago.
Crucially, we see Coveney picking up votes from TDs, senators, and MEPs from all over the country, even in Dublin, where we figure he could pick up at least seven votes.
Those seven are Maria Bailey of Dun Laoghaire, former TD and now senator James Reilly (deputy leader), Dun Laoghaire TD and former ceann comhairle Seán Barrett, junior health minister Catherine Byrne, Josepha Madigan of Dublin Rathdown, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, and Dublin Bay South’s Kate O’Connell.
We feel O’Connell is more likely to support Coveney given her constituency rival/colleague Eoghan Murphy’s deep involvement in Varadkar’s campaign.
The thinking is that with Varadkar as taoiseach, Murphy is guaranteed a senior cabinet post, whereas O’Connell could be in line for promotion sooner under Coveney.
The intentions of other senior ministers from Dublin like Paschal Donohoe and Richard Bruton are not yet known, but it would be presumptuous of Varadkar to think they would naturally go his way.
Predictably enough, we see Coveney picking up a lot of support in Munster.
In Cork alone, we see Agriculture Minister Michael Creed backing his fellow county man.
Pat Breen and Joe Carey from Clare are likely, we feel, to plump for Coveney over Varadkar.
We also see Cork junior ministers Dara Murphy and David Stanton going Coveney’s way rather than with the Dubliner.
A host of senators, who would be seen as Kennyites, are also more likely to support a Coveney bid.
As of now we see Munster senators Jerry Buttimer, Tim Lombard (a close school friend of Coveney), Kerry’s Paul Coghlan, and ex-TD Kieran O’Donnell backing Coveney, along with MEPs Deirdre Clune, Seán Kelly, and Mairead McGuinness.
But for Coveney to win, he will have to adopt a Seanad-like campaign, which involves visits to TDs’ homes in order to secure the votes, say sources.
We see both Enda Kenny and Michael Ring from Mayo supporting Coveney.
For Varadkar, there is no surprise as to who is his support base.
The Fine Gael malcontents or rebels are naturally more attracted to the maverick Varadkar. They say he has the X factor that will help the party reconnect with the public.
Varadkar is hoping a strong base from Dublin and the east coast will give him what he needs to overtake Coveney in the race — and we see him with a good chunk of Dublin votes.
But, as stated above, he does not have Dublin locked down and if momentum goes against him, Varadkar could see further support drift towards Coveney.
Along with Eoghan Murphy, we see the following Dubliners going Varadkar’s way: Colm Brophy, Alan Farrell, Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Noel Rock, senators Catherine Noone and Neale Richmond, and MEP Brian Hayes.
We also see the likes of Ministers Heather Humphreys, Paul Kehoe, chief whip Regina Doherty, Joe McHugh, Patrick O’Donovan, Helen McEntee, Sean Kyne, party vice-chairman Pat Deering, Jim Daly, John Deasy (maybe), Brendan Griffin, party chairman Martin Heydon, Fergus O’Dowd, Michael D’Arcy, Peter Burke, and John Paul Phelan all going Varadkar’s way.
We have deliberately not committed the names of senior ministers like Michael Noonan, Paschal Donohoe, Richard Bruton, Simon Harris, and Charlie Flanagan because we believe their support is likely to be conditional on any sort of promise of being kept in Cabinet.
We suspect all of the undecideds, apart from Donohoe, are ultimately likely to go for Coveney but these votes could be swayed.
As Juno McEnroe writes today, the votes in the parliamentary party are important, but they are not all.
An electoral college situation applies which will see party councillors as well as ordinary members have a vote.
As a result, there will be a series of regional hustings during the three-week campaign.
The votes of the 230 councillors will count for 10% of the result while the ordinary members will account for 25% of the vote.
Let the battle commence.
Those likely to support Simon Coveney
TOTAL: 37 (including Simon Coveney’s own vote)
Those who are likely to support Leo Varadkar
TOTAL: 30 (including Mr Varadkar’s own vote)
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved