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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019

'Going through the motions' but Leo still has time for 90 minutes of questions

Varadkar wooing fans in Wicklow and Coveney cheered by admirers in Athlone show that it’s not over ’till it’s over.

Leo Varadkar speaking to Fine Gael party members in Wicklow this evening.
Leo Varadkar speaking to Fine Gael party members in Wicklow this evening.
Image: @campaignforleo

A SPECTACULAR VIEW of the Glen of the Downs was the backdrop to a Fine Gael gathering in Wicklow yesterday – but the assembled crowd only had eyes for Leo Varadkar

The Dublin West TD who could be Taoiseach was in the garden county taking in a visit to Wicklow Gaol (an historic venue he secured funding for during his time as tourism minister) before talking to party members and councillors. And the common murmur in the room appeared to be, “Leo is very impressive”.

“He is a good speaker and he handled himself very, very well tonight,” said one young man attending the event at the Glenview Hotel.

“He doesn’t avoid answering questions, that’s for sure,” said another, highlighting that Varadkar answered members’ questions for 90 minutes, finishing up just before 11pm before heading to the hotel bar to grab a cup of coffee.

The Social Protection Minister was invited by Fine Gael TD Andrew Doyle (who publicly backed Varadkar yesterday) before the leadership race kicked off.

There was one notable local absence from the meeting last night – Wicklow TD and Minister for Health Simon Harris. He has pledged his support for Varadkar’s running mate, Simon Coveney.

Varadkar’s opponent was at a rally in Athlone yesterday evening, with his supporters not letting up, dubbing Coveney the “comeback kid”.

By all accounts, there was a rapturous crowd for the Housing Minister in the midlands. In Wicklow, the atmosphere was not as jovial, but it was no less enthusiastic and positive.

Why Leo?

Members this evening had various reasons. His charisma, his kindness, his change of vision for the party – these were all cited as factors behind their support for him.

“I would have been a very big fan of Enda Kenny, which is probably a bit unusual given my age, but it looks like he (Leo) is going to get it and I think he will be very good for Fine Gael and the country as well,” said one young Fine Gael member.

There were no criticisms of either ministers in the contest, with most stating that the race had “two very good candidates”.

“But the way the numbers are looking, I think Leo has it,” said one elderly local man.

“Look, it’s a done deal, we just have to go through the motions now.”

Whether we are just going through the motions, we are only entering day six of a 20-day contest.

One source close to Varadkar said the candidates need to make sure they don’t get complacent and say something out of sorts. With jam-packed schedules and as tiredness sets in, one slip-up could cause a lot of damage. Both men have to be at the top of their game as the hustings kick off this Thursday.

While it may have appeared this race was over before it even got off the ground, with a raft of TDs and senators backing Varadkar, one source said last night that “the race is nowhere near over”.

There have already been some controversial headlines, such as FG TD Kate O’Connell’s ‘choirboy’ comments, as well as talk about a rift between Harris and Varadkar.

Varadkar on Harris: We get on very well

There have been rumours that the Health Minister could lose his seat in Cabinet if Varadkar becomes Taoiseach, but the Social Protection Minister only had kind words for the Wicklow TD last night.

Harris is doing a “great job” in the Department of Health, said Varadkar.

“Notwithstanding all the gossip you read in the newspapers, we do actually get on very well,” he added.

“We don’t always see eye to eye but we do get on very well.”

He thanked Harris and said the health minister could not be at the event as he was meeting with an EU commissioner on health matters. (However, as mentioned, Harris also managed to fit in the trip to Athlone giving an impassioned speech to voters as to why they should throw their weight behind Coveney.)

Varadkar was apparently well aware of this, but one Fine Gael member said he didn’t drop Harris in it at the meeting.

But one Fine Gael Wicklow Councillor, Irene Winters (who is backing Simon Coveney) confirmed Varadkar’s statement that there is no bad blood between the pair.

“I work with Harris, I have never heard him say a bad word about Leo Varadkar – so whatever spin is being put out there that’s not the case. It is not like that. The two get on very well, they are friends.”

Earlier in the day, Varadkar presented his eleven-page policy document to the media.

Differing from Coveney’s policy document, Varadkar’s makes some concrete promises. He clarified in Wicklow last night that it was not a manifesto, but said it could possibly be incorporated into a future election manifesto (though he has said he does not intend to call an early election).

Varadkar went into more detail last night, stating that he would like to impose a property tax on vacant properties in high demand areas, while discussing the “punitive costs” landlords experience, stating they should be treated like any other business and permitted to offset any loss.

He also reiterated his points about getting people back to work – those that want to work, that is. There’s no doubt that Varadkar knows his audience.

One member of the public rose to his feet to point out that there is no incentive to work anymore due to the rate of social welfare payments. He wanted to know what the minister planned to do about that. The question received widespread applause in the room.

Varadkar said there are barriers preventing people going back to work, such as people’s fear that they will lose their rent supplement, or their medical card. He said he is working with Minister Harris to make sure this is not the case.

Varadkar reminded the crowd that he is the first Fine Gael Minister for Social Protection in 35 years, but that he has higher ambitions.

He said Enda Kenny is the “man who gave Ireland back its future” – and clearly, he wants to play a key role in pushing on that effort.

Quoting poet Robert Frost, Varadkar used the lines from the poem The Road Not Taken: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. And sorry I could not travel both…”.

He was referring to the recession, and claimed that the Irish people have to make the choice to not repeat the same mistakes and go back to the boom and bust cycle. But it could also be said the Fine Gael party also has two different roads laid out in front of it.

Which one will it go with? We will find out soon.

Read: The man who would be king – is Simon Coveney on a well-worn path to Taoiseach?

Read: From poison chalice to top of the table, is Leo Varadkar destined to be Taoiseach?>

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