Six to switch. Simon says that’s all it takes. It’s a good line but will it lure the magic number of votes the Coveney camp says it needs to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?
Dream on, says Varadkar’s side, pointing to the ever-widening gap between the two FG candidates on The Irish Times leadership tracker.
The Coveney tails may be up after the opening round of hustings, but Fine Gael’s leadership election underdogs might be biting off more than they can chew by claiming a shock victory next Friday is now an achievable target.
If this happens, it will be achieved with spectacular subterfuge. Then again, we are talking about politicians here.
Simon Coveney and his team must identify a dirty half-dozen among Leo Varadkar supporters and then convince them to renege on their public promise in a private ballot.
They aren’t expecting individuals to do a U-turn in the spotlight on the Leinster House plinth. Nobody wants to risk the reputational damage that would incur. Instead, they will focus on colleagues they say assured Simon of their vote only to declare for Leo when they saw him running away with the parliamentary party contest last weekend. There are also individuals who hopped aboard the gathering Varadkar bandwagon in order to be on the winning side but know they will be far back in the queue when the plum jobs are doled out. They might chance a gamble in the secrecy of the vote, with the right inducement.
Fifteen was the figure being bandied about this week by hurt and disappointed Coveneyites when they talked about turncoats. They instanced one example of a junior minister in the south of the country who went out campaigning in the company of a senior Minister and then shocked them by announcing his support for Varadkar.
But while they whinged about Leo’s premature parading of snaffled Simon supporters for the delectation of the media, they forgot that the first man out to parade his acquisitions was actually Coveney.
The Cork man’s early campaign was so comprehensively eclipsed by Team Leo’s clinical capturing of the crucial parliamentary vote – exactly what Simon would have longed to do except he failed miserably – it almost collapsed.
Down last Saturday, but not quite out. Since then, Coveney has been pushing the argument, with some success, that he is the membership choice and their out-of-touch messengers in Leinster House aren’t recognising this. Yet.
The release of our Ipsos MRBI poll on Thursday, just before the hustings started in Dublin, further buoyed his backroom team, who were already encouraged by grassroots reaction at a series of town hall meetings during the week. The results had Coveney a few points higher than Varadkar in the public’s preference for leader.
They felt their man did well in TV and radio interviews. He was certainly the strongest performer on the first night of the hustings, even if his sulky barb about his rival preparing too well was an interesting little slip.
But all this means nothing if he can’t win back support from his political peers – the elected men and women, from Cabinet level down, who work at close quarters with the two candidates and know them best.
And they have overwhelmingly opted for Varadkar.
So what might Coveney say to potential returned prodigals?
“You’ve seen the polls. Leo’s unique selling point about being the people’s choice doesn’t stack-up. Look at what your party members are saying. Who are they supporting? If you say you’ll vote for me in the privacy of the ballot box, I’ll know it was you and I’ll remember it.”
Yesterday, that’s how one prominent member of the campaign team imagined such a conversation might go. That same supporter pointed to the leadership heave against Enda Kenny in 2010, when most of the pundits had Richard Bruton home and hosed in the days leading up to the vote and it was said that Kenny needed to make up a substantial vote deficit to overhaul his challenger.
Simon was sold so many pups by his colleagues he could open a pet shop
Some argue that that this time out, such a reversal is nigh on impossible. Far fewer made their intentions public last time out. This time, Ministers, TDs, Senators and MEPs have given their backing, in public, to Leo Varadkar.
And they are men and women of their word.
They are not dishonest people, but they are politicians.
Professional politicians in the midst of a battle to preserve their own interests. Would it be very harsh, wrong even, to suggest that at times like this it is best not to believe a word out of any of their mouths?
Would it, Mr Coveney?
Simon was sold so many pups by his colleagues he could open a pet shop.
We found little sympathy for him from one Minister who is backing Varadkar. “He was very naive, thinking he had numbers on his side when he hadn’t nailed them down properly. It’s his own fault, Leo outclassed him in terms of planning and strategy, and that’s what we need. He should stop complaining.”
But as always, it’s all about the numbers.
Coveney’s people insist that six swing voters among the elected representatives (who account for 65pc of the vote) along with a sufficiency of councillors (10pc) and a 60-40 split in Coveney’s favour from the grassroots (25pc) could yet land him the big prize.
They feel backbencher Kate O’Connell’s cheeky description of Varadkar’s key supporters as choirboys singing for their supper has gone down very well with the grassroots, sore at the idea that their TDs and Senators effectively ended the game before they got the chance to participate.
“For God’s sake, Kate O’Connell has pissed all over us and we’re doing nothing about it,” said one exasperated Leo man.
The underdogs point to Enda Kenny’s triumph against the odds. They think they can turn the tanker around by the end of next week. It’s a big ask.
“It’s a strange way to run a campaign” said a spokesperson for the Leo camp last night. “Trying to win by saying the people you want to vote for you are essentially dishonest.”
But Coveney’s people have no choice but to bank on the duplicity angle.
“People were saying to Simon’s face ‘I’ll vote for you’ and then they switched. It wouldn’t be the first time a politician said one thing and did another. And it won’t be the last.” That from a politician and a Coveney supporter who is clearly pinning high hopes on his profession’s capacity for double-dealing.
Tomorrow night, Dubliner Leo enters the lion’s den. He is in Cork, Simon’s home territory. If he ups his game and performs well in front of his toughest audience yet, it should be all over.
But it will be a very anxious week for Varadkar and his lieutenants, sweating more buckets than the two candidates and the audience put together in the Red Cow Hotel on Thursday night.
Ah relax, lads.
Sure you have the required number of votes. In the bag.
They promised you.
Your fellow politicians gave you their word.
Nothing to worry about.
Fine Gael members prepare to vote early
The members of Fine Gael and their councillors will start voting from Monday.
The parliamentary party members do their thing on Friday.
They have a four-hour window to get in and vote, with the polls opening at 8am and closing at midday.
That’s a lucky break for Leo Varadkar, self-declared champion of the “people who get up early in the morning”.
But those parliamentarians who are fond of the occasional drop should mind themselves on Thursday night – beware of kind souls trying to ply them with drink.
“Wouldn’t it be terrible if some of them went missing in the morning having slept in after a long night?” mused a stalwart of one campaign team yesterday, contemplating the possibility of a close race.
“A person could easily get locked in the toilet or break a leg or something. These things have been known to happen. Particularly before a midday.”
The insincerest form of flattery
As part of their preparation for the series of leadership election hustings taking place this weekend around the country, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney took a leaf from Hillary Clinton’s book and held mock debate sessions to sharpen them up ahead of the events.
If only somebody could get the raw footage it would be comedy gold.
In Leo’s case, Paschal Donohoe took on the role of Coveney.
Paschal: What’s my motivation? What’s my motivation? Thank you very much.
Leo: Think Royal Cork Yacht Club.
In Coveney’s case, Simon Harris assumed the role of Varadkar.
Harris: What’s my motivation? What’s my motivation?
Coveney: Cupcakes and avocado mash.
Meanwhile, Varadkar’s campaign team held a fundraiser on Wednesday night in the Stephen’s Green Club. There were about 50 guests at the high-level bash, where it was hoped a silent collection would go a long way towards defraying the cost of Leo’s nationwide leaflet drop of Fine Gael’s 21,000 members. The print and delivery run for the Minister for Social Protection’s glossy 12-page brochure is estimated to have cost almost €30,000.
The ultra-cautious Varadkar crew thought he was a spy in the camp
The event was organised by Wexford TD Michael Darcy.
We hear a veteran supporter of the Coveney camp innocently wobbled in during the proceedings. He was meeting an old friend for a drink in the club. The ultra-cautious Varadkar crew thought he was a spy in the camp and gave him short shrift.
Spinning like mad
Last night’s hustings for Fine Gael members in the southeast region took place in the conference hall of the Institute of Technology Carlow. Party headquarters, along with the candidates and their teams, were allocated rooms in which to prepare.
Simon Coveney and his people found themselves billeted in the “Spinning Room”.
We’re not sure if they found this funny, but somebody in IT Carlow certainly has a sense of humour.
The Spinning Room is part of the college’s sports complex and houses the exercise bikes used by fitness fans for “spin” workout sessions.
But still . . .
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