From top: Barrow Centre, IT Carlow last Friday ahead of a Fine Gael leadership debate.; Derek Mooney
If memory serves me right, and it rarely does, in one of the many documentaries on the fall of Margaret Thatcher, Cecil Parkinson recounts the story of Michael Heseltine approaching him in the House of Commons to ask for his vote in the leadership battle following Thatcher’s resignation.
Parkinson, a long-time confidante of the Iron Lady was taken aback by the brazenness of the approach. He tried to explain to Hezza that, given his closeness to Margaret, he could not be seen to back the man whose challenge had just brought her down. Heseltine brushed his concerns aside, saying: “I don’t care who you say you’re voting for Cecil, just as long as you vote for me”.
Coveney supporters must be hoping the Heseltine approach will sway some of those who have already publicly declared for Varadkar.
According to some associated with the Coveney camp, Simon needs to swing just 6 Oireachtas members back over to their side to neutralise Varadkar’s lead and leave the decision in the members’ hands.
It is a very long shot.
While the secrecy of the ballot may allow some individuals to exercise a buyer’s remorse and switch back to the guy they may have committed to backing in the first place, are there six, or more, of them in the Fine Gael parliamentary party?
I doubt it very much. This is not a reflection on anyone’s character but rather it is to wonder what would anyone gain by switching away from the likely winner at this point?
Doubtless, as I type there are Coveney grassroots supporters across the constituencies busy lobbying their local TDs and Senators to switch support before the parliamentary party votes next Friday.
I know how this works. I was one of the many grassroot activists who did it for Haughey during the early heaves against Charlie. But the tactic has only limited effectiveness as it can only hope to influence those who are undecided or wavering.
Those who have openly declared their support have already factored the impact on their supporters into the equation. They know that they can either ride out any local displeasure or watch those supporters switch sides when they gain preferment at the next reshuffle.
The bigger problem for Team Coveney is that the “winner alright” attitude to Varadkar has started to take hold among the group that Simon expected to win by a couple of clear lengths: the membership.
Many, if not most, of the rank and file Fine Gael party members may prefer Simon personally and support his more centrist platform, but they are political animals. They read the polls and online support trackers and can see that Leo is well ahead.
They do not want a divided party after the contest and so they will feel a self-imposed pressure to go with their heads rather than their hearts and give their vote to the person they believe will be their next leader, rather than the one they would like to be their leader.
I am around political parties and constituency organisations long enough to know that there is also a sizeable cohort of curmudgeonly gits in every organisation who will do whatever runs counter to the prevailing trend.
In this instance, they will back Simon as they resent having the parliamentary party alone decide who should be the next leader. But I also know that there are not enough of them, even among the blueshirts!
Though I am a bit of a card-carrying curmudgeon myself, they are also wrong. While it may not look great to have a small number of people take such a major decision alone, you cannot get away from the fact that it is the broader Oireachtas grouping, the TDs, MEPs and Senators, who are best placed to judge and evaluate the ability and calibre of the candidates.
They are the ones who will go into the next election under their banner. They are the ones whose futures fall or rise on the success of their choice. They are the ones who have seen the contenders up close in the Dáil and in meetings. They are the ones whose task it is to know what their voters (as opposed to supporters) want.
Leading a party, a parliamentary party when you do not have the active support and endorsement of the elected representatives on the benches behind you leads to all kinds of difficulties, as we can see with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.
Experienced and long serving party members see this too. They know how politics works and, so, it is hard to conceive of a situation where the Fine Gael party members would land the parliamentary party with a leader it had not picked for itself.
For all these reasons, it is impossible to envisage a situation where Leo Varadkar is not Fine Gael leader at 6pm next Friday. If Simon does beat Leo it will not just be a major upset, it will send Fine Gael into turmoil.
The four debates with his rival have exposed Varadkar’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Indeed, the fact that pundits judged Coveney as the winner of most, if not all, the hustings, casts major doubts on Varadkar’s claims as a skilled debater and media performer.
His platform for the leadership was high on style and flair, but low on detail and substance, while some elements in his version of his ministerial record have been questioned by colleagues.
While the recent Irish Times and Sunday Business Post polls differ (significantly) on the size of the bounce Varadkar’s Fine Gael can expect, that there will be a bounce is not in doubt. The question is how long that bounce will last and will it be sufficient to withstand an election later in the year.
Varadkar has dismissed the idea of calling a “snap” election – but that does not rule out the possibility of a “rift” with independent ministerial colleagues “emerging” at Cabinet over policy that necessitates an early election.
Though, as Simon Coveney discovered, Varadkar’s crew are fans of the shock and awe style of campaigning and like to move quickly and take an early advantage, they also like to prepare. They know that voters do not particularly like unnecessary/stroke elections, but will Irish voters regard an election to change a replace a do-nothing government with a decisive administration as entirely “unnecessary”?
His advisers will watch the results of the British general election in 10 days’ time to see if Theresa May’s gamble paid off and whether she increased her majority. Though her campaign has been full of errors, none thus far seem to relate to her calling the election early, but the results will tell all.
That said, the real determinant as to whether there will be an election before the winter or not will be how far above the 30% mark Varadkar can bring Fine Gael’s support and for how long.
But there’s a Catch-22. The longer the bounces lasts; the more sustainable and secure it appears, but the longer you hang around the more you take ownership of the existing crises, and the opprobrium that goes with them, plus you have the added complication of some unforeseen events derailing you.
It is a delicate balancing act, and while the evidence of recent years is that Minister Varadkar can’t do balance, can Taoiseach Varadkar? By the way, do you know any horses who would like to serve in the Seanad?
Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney