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What next for Leo? No mutterings of heaves, but will Varadkar be able for the opposition benches?

Big players in Fine Gael are backing Leo Varadkar after a bad election for the party.

Image: Eamonn Farrell

FINE GAEL TROOPS have been rallying against any suggestion that Leo Varadkar should step aside as Fine Gael leader.

The sitting Taoiseach predicted last week, before the election, that his party would walk away with the most seats. 

Instead, the earthquake election result saw the party take just 35 seats. 

Despite Varadkar stating last week that he didn’t believe his party was heading for a car-crash election result, Fine Gael’s obvious disappointment with that number means the inevitable question about his leadership has arisen. 

The Sinn Féin surge decimated the numbers for Fine Gael, but the big players in the party have brushed away any suggestion that Varadkar should not stay at the helm of the party. 

Simon Coveney has said there is “no question” over Varadkar’s leadership, despite some already asking what might have been for the party had the Cork man taken over as leader after Enda Kenny. 

Paschal Donohoe also declared his support for Varadkar after he was elected in Dublin Central, insisting he would continue as leader of his party.

Richard Bruton said at the Dublin count centre on Monday that he does not accept the assertion that Varadkar should not be leader, stating that he has been “an extraordinary Taoiseach” who drove social change in the country. 

Whether Varadkar wants to remain as leader or not, the matter isn’t up to him.

Under party rules, he must put himself up for re-election to be the leader of Fine Gael. 

If after a General Election, the party is not forming or joining in the formation of a government, under the rules, the leader must put himself or herself forward under a motion of confidence. 

The rules set out that this must happen within two months after the election process concludes. However, there are questions internally about how this rule plays out if government formation talks go past the two-month mark.

The vote of confidence by the parliamentary party members, when it does occur, will be carried out by secret ballot. 

If Varadkar fails to secure a majority then he must resign.

Donohoe said recently that it is his “strong view” that when Varadkar puts himself forward for re-election, he will continue as party leader. If Fine Gael doesn’t enter into government in some capacity, Varadkar will perhaps find himself filling Micheál Martin’s old seat on the opposition benches. 

Support could be behind the Fine Gael leader simply because of the devastation the party has already experienced in recent days. Any further change might be a risky business for the party, that will hope to rebuild in the years ahead in opposition, which is what some new TDs such as Neale Richmond have predicted. 

Questions around whether Varadkar is in the politics game for the long-run have arisen before. A number of years ago, he said he would be out of politics by the time he was 51 – a statement, he said, he regretted making. 

But those words have never really gone away.

When asked a couple of days before polling day if he had plans to take a top job in Europe after this election, Varadkar told TheJournal.ie that if Fine Gael finds itself in opposition, he will seek to continue to lead the party.

“I will continue to represent the good people of Dublin 15 and Dublin 7 who have trusted me with their vote.

“I have not ever been offered any of these wonderful jobs in Europe that people speculate about, I don’t think any of them are available until 2024 anyway,” he said. 

There has been speculation in political circles that Varadkar will have no interest in sitting in the opposition benches, with suggestions that he would be interested in taking up a role in Europe, perhaps around Brexit.  

Last year, Varadkar said he was “flattered” to be linked to the role of the new president of the European Commission but said at the time that he planned to stay put in Ireland as Taoiseach.

It’s not unusual for speculation to arise about a party’s leadership after an election – especially one where Fine Gael has seen its seats decimated. Enda Kenny faced off questions continuously about when he would head off into the sunset, with eventually some TDs openly asking the question of him. 

There were probably more than a few Fine Gael TDs who were pushing for Kenny to hop on his bike (as an avid cyclist often seen tackling the Ring of Kerry) – one of those being Varadkar, who was anxious to take over as leader.

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While Leo doesn’t find himself in the same circumstances as his predecessor, there might be a secret few who are interested in the job. Coveney has been mentioned as possibly the man to steady the ship and rebuild. While Varadkar had the vote of the parliamentary party, Coveney had the support of the grassroots.

Then there is Simon Harris, the former health minister, that many peg as the possible next leader of Fine Gael. Or Paschal Donohoe, though he has stated publicly that he isn’t interested. 

The big question is that if Fine Gael finds itself in opposition, will Varadkar be happy to sit on those benches, staring down either Mary Lou McDonald or Micheál Martin.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll find out. 

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