Perhaps the most striking thing about the Fine Gael leadership campaign so far is the extent to which it has been entirely focused on the party’s interests, rather than the country’s.
Even if you don’t think this is surprising, it is surely remarkable that most Fine Gaelers haven’t even bothered to pretend that the move to dump Enda Kenny and replace him with a newer, less voter-repellent model, is actually in some way about a better government for the country. They seem quite cool with the fact that we all know it’s about maximising Fine Gael votes at the next election.
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I expect that over the weekend the candidates will seek to shape the narrative away from Fine Gael’s interests and towards the country’s. Expect policy documents and visions for the country, among other exotica.
But we should remember that this contest was triggered when Leo Varadkar rose at the parliamentary party in February (followed promptly by Simon Coveney) and told his colleagues that they needed to prepare for a general election – an observation understood by all present to mean: “We need to get rid of Enda Kenny, and replace him with me. Otherwise a gang of you may lose your seats.” That got their attention alright.
The internal Fine Gael nature of the contest is also demonstrated by the party’s refusal to hold a television debate between the candidates that everyone could watch. RTÉ executives have been tearing their hair out for weeks trying to get the party to agree to a debate – the candidates themselves are amenable, I understand – without success.
Sure, the leadership hustings – managed by the party, framed by the party, controlled by the party – will be live-streamed on the internet and available to the parts of the country with broadband. But if they really wanted you to see your next taoiseach they’d put it on television.
“We take the view that this is an internal party contest,” Fine Gael general secretary Tom Curran said yesterday. So there.
Do remember, though, that all these guys have day jobs that you are paying them to do. The press officers and advisers and staff that are running the operations – the TDs and Ministers and Senators appearing in a carefully choreographed procession – they’re all actually supposed to be doing something else.
Whoever wins – and Varadkar appears to have an unstoppable momentum at this stage – will doubtless enjoy something of a honeymoon
Of course the system has to allow space for politics to happen. We probably shouldn’t be too precious about it, though other countries have strict rules about this sort of thing. But it’s important to remember that the politics is to serve a greater end – the public good, the national interest, good government, call it what you will. We know what it means. It means an end that is beyond and above politics.
Whoever wins – and Varadkar appears to have an unstoppable momentum at this stage – will doubtless enjoy something of a honeymoon. But it’s not really a honeymoon. The voters – the swing voters in the middle who actually decide elections, rather than the Fine Gael loyalists who would vote for the party if Mr Tayto was the leader – will not be in love with Leo.
Varadkar is running away with it for a few reasons. He was better prepared, better organised. He has anticipated the contest for longer
Nor would they be in love with Simon, irresistible and all as each man’s charms may be. They will merely be tickled by their novelty. They will be as far from a political conversion to Fine Gael as a sweaty fumble in Copper’s is from a walk down the aisle.
The fascination with the new leader will be temporary. Declarations of political honeymoons are always followed quickly by notices of their termination.
But what the period of interest does is give the new taoiseach a chance to talk to people who would not normally be listening to him. Most people aren’t that interested in the daily comings and goings of politics, but they will notice there is a new and different taoiseach. For a brief period, he will hold their attention. But what does he want to say to them? It’s time we heard some of that.
Varadkar is running away with it for a few reasons. He was better prepared, better organised. He has anticipated the contest for longer.
The public belief that you are not really a politician will not last long when you’re actually the taoiseach
More significantly, he has mastered how to crank the levers of the political machinery to his advantage. He presents more convincingly as the candidate of change, and that is the single biggest advantage in any western election these days. He is still regarded – as first identified in Irish Times focus groups a year and half ago – as “not an ordinary politician”, “someone who tells it like it is”, and so on.
In an anti-political age, for the public to believe you are not like all the other politicians is a golden advantage.
But these are all tactical or temporary advantages; they will not achieve anything in themselves. The public belief that you are not really a politician will not last long when you’re actually the taoiseach. Appearing as the candidate of change entails an expectation that a programme of change will follow – and change for the better, too.
Mastery of politics is only a means to an end. To what end the new leader wishes to apply these considerable skills is still unclear.
That is the missing part of this process to choose the next taoiseach, and it is high time someone located it. Because whatever Fine Gael thinks, this contest isn’t just about them. It’s about the future leader of the country, and that means we all have a stake.