Despite sunshine, a few storm clouds rolled in from the south for Leo, writes Lise Hand.

The photographers eagerly shepherded Leo over to where little Lucas and Arthur were hanging out on the lawn of Merrion Square. After all, it’s already Day Seven of this election campaign, and there’s not a baby kissed yet, which will never do.

If this had been an encounter with the current Taoiseach, the 18-month old twins would’ve been whisked off the grass and tucked into the crook of both his elbows while he simultaneously gave the snappers a cheery thumbs-up. But Leo is no Enda and he left the two tots on terra firma and simply sat cross-legged on the ground beside them and smiled for the cameras. The Social Protection Minister is not really a kissy-baby sort of politician, but he’s canny enough to know that had he declined the photographers’ invitation, he might have rapidly found himself categorised as being the snubby-baby sort instead.

And it’s all going so well for the frontrunner. A walk in the park, his more ebullient backers might have reckoned, as they posed with their candidate for upbeat photos in the sunny square.

Leo had just left the offices of the Irish Architectural Archive, where he had unveiled his battle-plan to make Fine Gael great again. It was bristling with grassroots-pleasing promises to give the 21,000-strong membership a greater say in the running and organisation of the party and to restore it as “a fighting force” by better pre-election planning.

“We had a very tough European and local elections in 2014 and I know councillors, candidates, TDs and members found it difficult, often tripping over water meters to knock on a door to explain to parents why a medical card had to be taken away from their child,” he told the packed room of supporters and media. “Under my leadership, that will never happen again”.

He also offered what was perhaps an insight into why his intense planning for this campaign would’ve made Caesar Augustus weep tears of pride. He recounted the first time he entered a political race in the local elections of 1999 as “an ambitious 20-year old, who thought I had all the answers”. He got 300 votes; “it was the third-worst Fine Gael performance, but I learned a lot from it”.

Despite the sunshine yesterday, a few storm clouds rolled in from the south. His rival Simon Coveney has been running a markedly different campaign, putting his case forward on the local and national airwaves at every opportunity and holding rallies and meetings with members and councillors, mostly outside the capital.

Minister Simon Coveney with Young Fine Gael president Marian O’Donnell after he signed the Young Fine Gael Youth Pledge.
Minister Simon Coveney with Young Fine Gael president Marian O’Donnell after he signed the Young Fine Gael Youth Pledge.

The two men have been largely circling each other, letting off the odd jab rather than a flurry of punches, but at a doorstep interview in Wicklow, Simon came out swinging. He said Fine Gael needed a real debate about who is the “best and most qualified person” to be party leader and Taoiseach.

“People are starting to get that debate now that’s not superficial or based on practised media launches,” he sniped.

Nor was the Housing Minister impressed with his colleague’s declaration that Fine Gael is the party for people who get up early in the morning.

“Yes, of course, we represent that person,” said Simon, before putting the boot in: “But we also need to focus on the people who can’t get up in the morning, for whatever reason, or don’t have a bed to go to at night.”

As the four crucial weekend hustings approach, the rivals are ratcheting up the rhetoric to woo a membership pining for some tough talk, especially after a year of having to play nice with the Soldiers of Destiny and endure the jeers of Sinn Féin.

So, Leo obligingly let loose at the Shinners. Asked if his vow to rebrand the Blueshirts as the United Ireland Party (which also drew a dig from Simon) indicated a willingness to work with Sinn Féin, Leo took aim and unleashed a fusillade of political bullets.

“No, I’m not putting out an olive branch to Sinn Féin, at all. I think Sinn Féin remains the greatest threat to our democracy and our prosperity as a State,” he declared. “Part of my mission, if I have that opportunity as leader, is to take Sinn Féin on.”

Leo Varadkar with Minister Michael Ring after Mr Varadkar published detailed plans to energise Fine Gael.
Leo Varadkar with Minister Michael Ring after Mr Varadkar published detailed plans to energise Fine Gael.

Team Leo cheered and clapped at the denouncing of the party. “Hear, hear,” they chorused happily, as the ghost of Maggie Thatcher drifted through the room. Leo, the Iron Laddie.

Leo still has a clear lead. Yet, there is discontent in some quarters, such as among the public sector over his plans on strike action, but, so far, this Laddie is not for turning.

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