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Fine Gael's next leader, from most to least likely

Who succeeds Enda Kenny? We rank the contenders…

File Photo: Now that Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael, Enda Kenny has confirmed that he will step down at some stage during the term of the next Dail, the front runners to succeed him are Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald and Simon Coveney. Enda Kenny with three of his most likely successors: Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald.

ENDA KENNY HAS been Fine Gael’s leader for 13 years and will almost certainly lead his party into the next general election.

But that hasn’t stopped many in political circles speculating about his eventual successor not least when he term-limited himself last week following claims he could lead the party into the next election and the one after that.

Fine Gael elects its leader through an electoral college system with votes weighted according to a member’s status in the party.

The parliamentary party (TDs, Senators and MEPs) accounts for 65% of the overall vote, councillors have 10% of the vote and ordinary members have 25%. To be a candidate you must be nominated by at least a tenth of the parliamentary party.

The same names of potential candidates have been rumbling around for some time but what chance have each of them got. Here’s our ranking of Enda Kenny’s likely successor, from most to least likely:

Frances Fitzgerald 

30/6/2015 Asylum Seekers Reports Source: /Photocall Ireland

The Justice Minister has only recently emerged as a serious contender. But there are a number of things which, at this moment, make her best-placed to succeed Kenny, not least the calming influence she has had on a troubled government department since taking over last year. Her steely side is is not often seen but no doubt being put to good use in Justice.

The Dublin Mid-West TD is a favourite of the current leadership and has the added advantage of being a woman whose views on issues such as marriage and abortion chime with middle Ireland. Not only would she be Fine Gael’s first female leader, she could potentially be the country’s first woman taoiseach.

In circumstances where Kenny steps down midway through his next term she could position herself as a compromise candidate to lead Fine Gael into the next election and serve only one term if successful. This would be an attractive proposition to younger party figures with their own future leadership ambitions.

Some believe Fitzgerald does not have enough support internally but that could be changing if her regular appearances in the Dáil canteen are anything to go by. Little things like this can make all the difference and there’s no doubt she’s increasingly aware of the possibility she could succeed Kenny.

Chances: Her gender and her stability make her a solid bet 

Leo Varadkar 

8/5/2015. INMO Annual Conference. Minister for Hea Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The Health Minister has long been tipped as a potential successor to Enda Kenny given his meteoric rise in the party, obvious political nous and the admirable way in which he went public about his sexuality.

He has spent the last two years shoring up support among parliamentary colleagues, listening to their concerns and assuaging them when he can. His popularity is not limited to his Dáil colleagues. A recent poll of Fine Gael supporters showed 49 per cent favoured him as the party’s next leader. That’s well ahead of any of the other contenders.

But down through the years the most obvious successor to a political party leader has ended-up sidelined. In 1990, Conservative MP Michael Heseltine was seen as Margaret Thatcher’s most obvious successor but he was beaten by John Major.

Here’s what Leo Varadkar said when we asked him the leadership question last year: 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The biggest problem for Varadkar may be the sense of inevitability that he will replace Kenny. If this becomes obvious to him he may prefer to sit out the next leadership battle and pursue the one after that. At 36, he’s not short on time, even if he doesn’t intend staying in politics forever.

Chances: A decent bet, but maybe not this time. 

Simon Coveney 

File Photo: Now that Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael, Enda Kenny has confirmed that he will step down at some stage during the term of the next Dail, the front runners to succeed him are Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald and Simon Coveney. End Source: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland

The Agriculture Minister is considered second favourite to Varadkar for the leadership but he lacks the charisma and star factor of his cabinet colleague. The Cork South-Central TD does well among rural voters and is definitely a more traditional type of Fine Gael leader than Varadkar.

He has mastered the agriculture and defence briefs and was calmness personified during the horsemeat crisis. But his recent pronouncements about a possible coalition with Fianna Fáil won’t have gone down too well with the grassroots where he would like to think most of his support comes from.

During the botched heave against Kenny in 2010, Coveney was rumoured to be playing both sides and even putting himself forward as a compromise candidate. This shows plenty of ambition, but perhaps not enough political savvy to be leader.

Chances: A strong contender, but maybe not strong enough

Richard Bruton

25/05/2015. Minister Bruton at the press conferenc

The Jobs Minister makes no secret of his leadership ambitions, often quoting Napoleon – “in every corporal’s kitbag is a squadron leader’s baton” – when asked about his intentions. He was deeply bruised by his failure to oust Kenny in 2010 but it’s evident that some ambition to lead the party remains.

Here’s what Richard Bruton said when we asked him the leadership question in 2013: 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

He describes the events of June 2010 as “ancient history” and has done a very good job in an important portfolio. This gives him credibility but many will highlight his inability to court the grassroots in the way that the likes of Kenny can.

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Chances: Always a contender, but never a likely winner. 

Brian Hayes

26/5/2014. European Elections Counts Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

There was a time when the Dublin MEP would have been a lot higher up this list but his European adventure means he’s out of the running until he returns to the Dáil. Such a possibility could arise through a by-election in the next term.

Were he to come back to Leinster House, Hayes would have lots of support within a parliamentary party he has remained close to. He’s regularly back in Dublin and serves as part of Fine Gael’s election strategy team.

His mastery of a brief, straight-talking and good political intelligence would also make him among the most credible of contenders. But a lot has to fall into place for Hayes to be in the race and he has committed to staying in Europe until at least 2019.

Chances: Circumstances work against him, but maybe next time

Paschal Donohoe 

6/8/2015. Tourist Industry Figures

The Transport Minister is highly-rated within the party and has performed very well in his current portfolio as well as the European Affairs one that preceded it. A capable media performer who holds the line solidly, he would be a very safe pair of hands. But Donohoe doesn’t appear to hold any ambition for the leadership nor does he appear to have the passion necessary for the role.

Chances: Slim

Simon Harris 

24/6/2015 Dail Scenes

The junior finance minister is definitely not shy about enhancing his own profile, regularly going out to bat for the government in the media. It was somewhat surprising that he was elevated to the most important junior ministerial portfolio last year but it was also indicative of the support he has amongst the current leadership.

He has demonstrated a great ability to master any brief or topic given to him. At 28 he’s almost certainly too young to be the next leader but he’ll definitely come into contention at some stage.

Chances: Not this time 

Read: Ireland’s next Taoiseach, ranked from most to least likely

Read: Ireland’s next Government, ranked from most to least likely

About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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