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Leo Varadkar speaking to the media at Fota Island Resort on Thursday. Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland
Get your think on

Loose Lips Leo and 4 other things we learned at the Fine Gael 'think-in'

The Fine Gael parliamentary party gathered in picturesque Fota Island to talk the economy, elections and Leo…

FINE GAEL TDS, Senators and MEPs gathered in the picturesque Fota Island Resort yesterday and today to discuss their priorities ahead of the new Dáil term with the Budget looming large.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s apparent ‘slapping down’ of Health Minister Leo Varadkar dominated much of the discussion on the fringes of the event with several ministers and the two protagonists themselves facing questions on the matter yesterday.

But the party was keen to focus on a Budget next month where it hopes to, for the first time since coming to office, offer some form of relief to austerity-worn taxpayers. How that is done was very much up for debate.

Here’s what we learned over the course of Thursday and Friday as Fine Gael parliamentarians gathered in Cork…

1. Loose Lips Leo does himself no favours… 

Leo Varadkar has been very vocal during the summer recess. As one of his ministerial colleagues told us recently he has done a remarkable thing: enhanced his popularity despite admitting the government can’t yet deliver on a lot of its promised health reforms.

But the straight-talking minister appeared to overstep the mark this week when he suggested on Tuesday that the long-mooted tax relief for workers in the Budget would amount to “an extra fiver or tenner in your payslip every week”.

Day Two of the Fine Gael Think-In. Leo'

These remarks and others about the delay in implementing health reforms appeared to have annoyed Enda Kenny. So much so that according to many observers he ‘slapped down’ Varadkar with comments made during several public appearances this week. Kenny attempted to draw a line under the matter this morning, but this one will simmer as long as the problems in health do.

But what does it all mean? Well, Varadkar is always going to look out for his interests in health – the prerogative of any minister and he was sticking to his guns on that yesterday. But he might want to be a bit more careful about how he does it and be careful about delving into specifics as he did this week. This clearly annoyed Kenny who was at pains to say there have been no decisions on the Budget yet.

2. … and annoys some backbenchers 

Day Two of the Fine Gael Think-In. Taoi Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

A number of Fine Gael backbenchers acknowledged privately that as much as they admire Varadkar his comments were not helpful when the government is trying to manage expectations ahead of the Budget. How will it look if the coalition can not now deliver a tax cut that benefits workers to the tune of between €5 or €10 a week?

Others were more supportive towards the straight-talking Leo who is more admired now within the party than he was 18 months ago.

Publicly several ministers arriving at Fota Island on Thursday were at pains to play down the matter despite there being some degree of puzzlement as to where Varadkar had gotten the “fiver or tenner” figure from. Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney admitted: “To be honest, I’m not quite sure where that figure came from.”

But Sports Minister Michael Ring summed-up Fine Gael’s desire to move away from the issue, telling RTÉ of Kenny’s ‘scolding’ of Varadkar:

“Lookit, it’s like your mother giving out to you but she still loves you.”

3. Michael Noonan’s calming influence 

Fine Gael Think-In. L to R. Taoiseach E Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

The Finance Minister made a point of appearing alongside Enda Kenny at a media opportunity on Thursday in what was a rare enough move.

But FG spinners were delighted as Noonan was only too willing to talk about all the positive economic news over the summer – all as a result of the government’s policies he added with a smile  - and outline his desire to move Ireland away from ‘boom and bust’.

He even took the sting out of the Enda/Leo spat noting that the “fiver or tenner” remarks were “illustrative rather than any prediction of what might be in the Budget”. 

4. This wasn’t actually a think-in 

photo Fine Gaelers gather in Fota Hugh O'Connell / Hugh O'Connell / /

Traditionally these party gatherings involve getting outside experts to address TDs, Senators and MEPs and give them plenty to ponder ahead of the new parliamentary session. But at Fota, Fine Gael organised workshops where ministers and backbenchers were put together on tables to talk ideas and strategy.

The feedback from those coming out of the sessions – held entirely in private – was generally positive in contrast to the angst many backbenchers have been exhibiting privately over the summer as they worried about their re-election prospects and what they viewed as too much focus on Labour’s problems and not those of Fine Gael’s.

“The mood here was one of determination to continue to work towards securing the recovery that is under way,” the Taoiseach said at the conclusion of the think-in.

The election starts now

With Frank Flannery and Phil Hogan gone, Fine Gael needs a new team to head its election strategy in the run-up to 2016 (or sooner) and with that in mind Kenny announced that Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald will head up the newly-established national strategy committee.

While party strategist Mark Mortell, who was one of the main organisers at the two-day event in Fota, is expected to play a key role in the election. The party’s general secretary Tom Curran addressed the parliamentary party on strategy and preparations for the next general election are now very much under way. Expect selection conventions to take place in constituencies across the country in the coming months.

PICTURES: Friends again! Leo and Enda patch things up over a cup of tea

Read: Public row? what public row?.. Enda’s trying to draw a line under the Varadkar spat

Read: Here’s how Michael Noonan wants to end ‘boom and bust’ economics

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