Regardless of who wins the election today, the real winner in all of this has been the
Fine Gael party, writes Alison O’Connor.

 

He put in the hard yards over the past year. In some quarters of Fine Gael it would appear that eagerness and readiness are somehow gauche and ill-mannered.

But when, as expected, Leo Varadkar wins the crown of the Fine Gael leadership this evening, it will have been the result of hard work and hunger, and that of a well organised and serious campaign team.

If they were in Fianna Fáil, a party that recognises the need for some political cutthroatness at such times, they would be labelled as heroes.

It was the beer and pizza circuit, the travelling around the country, the going to matches. It was the telephoning the new TD just after his first appearance on Prime Time to tell him that he had done really well.

Contrast that, apparently, with that same TD having Simon Coveney simply walk past him in the Dáil the next day.

Those that know Leo know that schmoozing is nothing near second nature to him, and that he is that very odd thing in a politician — somewhat socially awkward, and often disinterested.

“Politics is still a schmoozer’s business,” said the FG’er who relayed the Prime Time yarn. “Whether Leo is really interested in this stuff or not remains to be seen but he’s pretended really well to be for a while now.”

If this was a movie you could argue that the next Fine Gael leader should be Simon Coveney. Hollywood does love the tale of an underdog. He’s the one who refuses to quit, despite the odds, and bounces back, winning hearts all round.

But let’s face it Leo has always had the star turn thing going on. This week on social media a New York Times political reporter posted an article from the CNN website with the headline:“Gay son of Indian immigrant likely to be Ireland’s next leader”. As the US journalist commented alongside: “If this happened in the United States we’d say: “Only in America”’ The FG pair started out as the showpony and the workhorse, the cappuccino candidate and his Complan rival. It was clear from the start though that Leo’s camp had done their preparation.

How different might it all have turned out if the Coveney camp hadn’t shown such a naïve approach, bordering it has to be said on complacent. One source spoke of a level of presumptuousness in the Coveney camp.

Simon, he says, asked a colleague some time ago to be his campaign manager. The response was: “I won’t actually be voting for you and you never asked me to do so.”

Another spoke of the campaign’s lack of finesse, and inability to massage egos, with new, first time TDs in the Coveney camp asking veteran parliamentary party members to meet with Simon to discuss the leadership.

“That’s not how you do it. It just puts noses out of joint.” In the immediate days before Enda Kenny made his standing down announcement the Varadkar camp did begin to slightly doubt themselves. They wondered if they might be suffering from “confirmation” bias in terms of the TDs and senators they felt they definitely had on board, or if they had fallen into some sort of trap.

They had organised a campaign HQ office on Mount Street, but once that starting whistle was blown by Enda Kenny on Wednesday, May 17, they immediately retired to a secret location near Leinster House.

It was here they spent the first three days, in privacy, overseeing what we now know as the Varadkar “blitzkrieg”.

They had a grid outlining what would happen each day and how. They felt that if people were to declare early and stick their political necks out then the candidate and his campaign had to be in the kind of shape to confirm to them they had made the correct choice.

Last Sunday night in Cork, on the last night of the four hustings, Varadkar’s handful of key advisers, were telling their man in advance not to lose his cool, not to attack, to be generous and to remember that Simon Coveney was on home territory.

But their candidate thought better of that advice. Once Simon Coveney accused him of lacking compassion Leo retaliated saying the Corkman’s claims were “divisive, dishonest and not a good way to seek a mandate”.

Standing down the back of the room, his team, as soon as they heard it believed Leo’s was the correct approach. They felt it went down a treat with the party members as a perfect example of just how Leo as Taoiseach could take on Micheál Martin in the Dáil.

But even those in the Varadker camp will express their admiration for how Simon Coveney didn’t just hang in there, but managed to be inspiring, authentic and passionate — he showed personality not to mention wit.

There was the sense with Simon on the hustings that what you saw was what you would get as Taoiseach, while question marks do remain over Leo Varadkar’s authenticity and application.

The colleagues in favour of his candidacy have been heaping praise on Leo, with Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald reaching hyperbolic heights when she described him as “having magic in the way he thinks”. But even his biggest champions in this campaign would have lingering fears on that authenticity/application front.

It’s a cliché to say it but regardless of who wins the election today the real winner in all of this has been the Fine Gael party. The hustings were extremely well organised.

The Fine Gael leadership will not just skip one political leadership generation but two and immediately look more modern. Gone from the main stage will be Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan and inevitably others.

It’s easy to see it in hindsight but this new leadership blood is what is required to lift us out of our post austerity stupor and irritation. Interestingly it was Simon’s rhetoric on the hustings which spoke more to that need, but it looks as if it will be Leo’s job now to deliver on it.

For some time now answering the question — what does Fine Gael stand for — was not an easy one. If Varadkar is chosen as leader that answer looks set to become a far easier one to deliver.

Despite his protests it is clear that part of the package for Leo is a tilt to the right, a place where no one else currently resides in Irish politics, so that means definition, an edge. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all goes down.


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