Simon Coveney is not the whole package but, far from being written off, his performance of late has seen him claw back support and even overtake Leo Varadkar in the race to be the next leader of Fine Gael, writes Daniel McConnell.
LEO or Simon, Simon or Leo, that is the question.
Many in the media and a vocal group in Fine Gael have said Leo Varadkar will succeed Enda Kenny as leader, whenever he departs from the role.
For well over a year now, we have heard Leo is great, Leo is cool, Leo goes for pints, Leo will open your constituency office, Leo is smart, Leo is gay (which is progressive, unlike many in Fine Gael).
But most of all, we have heard that Leo is his own man and is not afraid to speak out when it matters. He, too, is in a not-too-demanding department in Social Protection, which allows him to work the backbenches hard. Despite being a minister, he likes to keep his Wednesday night’s free to break bread with his acolytes or potential supporters, always listening to their concerns.
For these reasons, Leo has been seen as the front-runner ahead of his main rival, Cork’s own true blue, Simon Coveney.
Coveney has been written off for being too cautious, too boring, too aloof, and for not being all that approachable to backbenchers and councillors. Some of those criticisms are valid but others are unfair and, mark my words, Simon Coveney will be the next leader of Fine Gael.
Dealt a very difficult hand by Enda Kenny after being given responsibility for the Department of Housing, he has had to contend with the thorny issues of water, housing, and homelessness.
Even his biggest detractors will admit he has performed admirably in the role. In the wake of the budget, he made a point of selling his successes to the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, and by all accounts was his usual composed and assured self.
Since securing a key victory over Fianna Fáil before Christmas on the issue of rent controls, the 44-year-old has seen his stock rise considerably.
Earlier this week, he oversaw the launch of the country’s latest national planning report, and displayed a poise and confidence in the detail which portrayed someone who takes his job seriously.
That is what you get with Coveney. And it is noticeable that the mood around him has changed in recent weeks.
Having delivered the wallop to Barry Cowen and Fianna Fáil, his workhorse approach has won him newly found respect of his colleagues. Serious Simon versus Lightweight Leo is what it will come down to. Workhorse versus show horse is how one TD put it.
But he has had his bold moments too. In 2001, discipline in the parliamentary party broke down and Coveney came out against then leader John Bruton in a leadership heave. His decision to go against Bruton was somewhat of a surprise.
Remember, it was his tweet about Brian Cowen’s below-par interview on Morning Ireland, in which he said the then taoiseach sounded like he was halfway between drunk and hungover, which ignited the controversy.
First elected to the Dáil in 1998 as one of Fine Gael’s youngest TDs, Coveney took the seat vacated by the tragic death of his father Hugh. On winning the seat, the raw and fresh-faced Coveney paid a brief but emotional tribute to his family from the dais at the count centre in the Neptune Stadium, fighting back tears.
“I won’t say much about my family apart from the fact that they have been hugely supportive of me, my mother and my eldest brother in particular,” he said. “I hope they are very proud today and I’ll say nothing else.”
That reluctance to open himself more, or to show passion or humanity, is still a feature of the Simon Coveney we see today. Very methodical, very cautious, and very earnest but not always exciting. He, too, doesn’t always get it right and has had to hold his hands up and apologise for his gaffes.
A number of years ago, he drew the ire of his party colleagues with comments he made in an interview with my colleague Juno McEnroe in this newspaper about possibly aligning with Fianna Fáil. He had to apologise and clarify his remarks at a stormy meeting of the party.
Likewise last year, his comments about reviewing Irish Water and water charges on Prime Time effectively killed off domestic charges overnight, with people cancelling their direct debits in their thousands. Again, he delivered a mea culpa to the party.
Back in 2010, he annoyed the hell out of many when it was believed he was attempting to play both sides in the abortive heave against Enda Kenny.
“Simon Coveney was all over the shop,” it was said at the time. “He put himself forward as the compromise candidate in the middle of it all and I mean there was strong suspicion on all sides that he was the mole.”
For all of those limitations, Coveney, a father of three, is on course to succeed Kenny because he is seen as a safer bet than Varadkar — more traditional Fine Gael.
There is also mounting concern that Varadkar’s ground war in terms of courting TDs and senators hasn’t been as successful as some would have hoped.
Varadkar himself has harboured similar fears, saying he thinks many in Fine Gael see him as too much of a maverick to be leader. It has also been suggested in recent weeks that Kenny, Michael Noonan, and other senior Fine Gael figures have begun moving to stop Varadkar’s effort, which is why the name of Paschal Donohoe has been floated as an alternative.
Donohoe has repeatedly denied he is interested in the top job and, should he remain out of the race, then Coveney’s ability and steady hand are likely see him home.
It has also been suggested that while Leo is the darling of the Dublin set such as Noel Rock and Eoghan Murphy, Coveney, as a former agriculture minister, is more in tune with the rural wing of the party.
When the fight begins in earnest, Coveney will also have one of the smartest street fighters in Fine Gael, namely Damien English, in his corner.
English, massively underrated and underused in his current role, is Coveney’s junior minister and has played a role in supporting his senior minister through some tricky waters. English, too, knows how to court votes, and will ensure that, when battle commences, no stone will be left unturned.
Coveney, while not the complete political package and forever living in the shadow of his highly successful brother, Greencore boss Patrick, has recovered much, if not all, of the lost ground on Varadkar in the leadership race. Like the tortoise from ‘the Tortoise and The Hare’, his methodical, cautious approach has paid dividends and people are warming to that sense of consistency Coveney offers.
Far from being written off, Coveney now appears to have the holy grail within his grasp.
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