Simon Coveney’s politeness and policies prove no match for Leo Varadkar

If the Fine Gael leadership race had kicked off with the hustings and not a catwalk of declarations, we would have a very different contest, and possibly a different winner, writes Elaine Loughlin.

But big-bang politics has reached Ireland, and Simon Coveney should have known.

Coveney had planned to build up a slow and steady groundswell of support over the two-week campaign. As he unveiled his detailed policies around the future of the party, the Government and the country, Fine Gael members would row in behind the bluer-than-blue candidate.

But Leo Varadkar had already cranked up the conveyor belt of senators, TDs and MEPs who were prepared to be rolled out in front of the rows of waiting microphones to declare their allegiances to the Social Protection Minister as part of his early shock-and-awe blitz.

By the first day of the campaign, the odds had stacked up against Mr Coveney and now, with the number of publicly-declared representatives behind Varadkar tipping 45, it is hard to see a way back for his Cork rival.

Many have noted that the race seems to have been won without Varadkar having to divulge a single policy idea.

Blaming the floundering crisis, which the Coveney camp found themselves in just hours before their Cork rally on Saturday night, on a lack of planning or preparation would be unfair and untrue. Both men had prepared extensively.

Indeed they were given more than 12 months notice as Enda Kenny signalled that he would lead Fine Gael into last year’s General Election but would step down as Taoiseach before the party had to confront the public yet again. Both men and their teams began to plan, but their tactics as seen in recent days have been remarkably different.

For Leo, the race started last year, as he went about wooing his backbench colleagues with pizza and beer and organising social trips to the races. The get-togethers — which were scoffed at at the time — have reaped dividends now when Varadkar most needs it, with his fellow Oireachtas members paying him back with more than just a round of drinks.

Indeed Leo — who sweetened up the waiting media with coffee and buns last week — is no stranger to luring would-be supporters with all the treats in the sweetshop in order to succeed. Back during his first general election campaign in 2007, he took to handing out Lion bars at a local Dart station bearing the slogan “Vote No 1 Leo the Lion”.

For the Coveney camp, carefully crafted and thought-out initiatives were the weapon that the Housing Minister had hoped would cement support. He prides himself on having in-depth knowledge of his brief and exercising an eye for detail — the boring but important stuff.

While Varadkar, heading off on an early 5k sprint around Dublin’s shiny docklands, stopped to talk to journalist for six minutes yesterday, a few hours later and on the other side of the Liffey his rival took 30 minutes to thoroughly pick through his policy document and a further 30 minutes taking questions.

Perhaps if all those Fine Gael TDs and senators had waited to listen to his policy proposals, or the arguments put forward at the hustings which begin on Thursday, the public declarations could have swayed in his direction.

The policy-over-personality point was one Coveney was eager to make yesterday.

“Certainly if we looked at it again, if we had the first husting on day one where members were very much involved in the discussion before any declarations were made, I think that would have been much healthier situation.

“But having said that, let’s see how the hustings take effect and impact that that has within the parliamentary party.

“It wouldn’t be the first time people changed their minds when they hear real arguments and real substance behind those arguments.”

Coveney and his supporters like to portray him as a decent, hardworking and honest politician, a quiet grafter. And he is all of those things.

But perhaps in this campaign, being too nice and getting by purely on your merits is not enough.

Policy and politeness don’t cut it when you are up against a lion.

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