June 2, 2017, 10:39 a.m.
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It’s possible, Simon Coveney insists. More than that, it’s happening. People are changing.
He produces a document with calculations on the share of the vote he needs – how many he needs here, how many there, how many switchers. It shows tight margins, a closable deficit. His supporters are whispering that two, maybe three members of the parliamentary party have switched. No names, though.
But he knows he is up against it, and he knows we all know that. He also knows he has done himself and his party a service by making a fight of it. And his opponent too, probably.
The story of his campaign is about trying to change the trajectory that began that first weekend. Wouldn’t he like to start again, to do things differently, not to be caught by the early rush to Varadkar?
“I don’t want to get into bitching about Leo, and I won’t,” he insisted in our interview on Tuesday.
“This has been a contest that has been going on for well over a year. I haven’t been involved in it for well over a year. I’ve been involved in it for maybe two or three months.”
Wasn’t that a mistake? Is that the decisive part of it?
“Yes and no. I believe that the day before the Taoiseach stood down, half the parliamentary party were supporting me, and all of our guys would be adamant about that, given the conversations they have had. And I don’t think people were lying to our face. Some people probably were, but the majority weren’t.
“When the thing kicked off, Leo did have a head start because he had a bigger core than me, and then there were people who thought we were both good candidates but were waiting to see how it was going to go. And that’s what happened in the first 48 hours.”
Coveney is clearly irked by how Varadkar prepared for and fought the campaign, especially in its early stages. But he is unwilling to dwell too much on it.
His fightback, and especially the way he has managed to frame the debate on terms that have benefited him, have made a contest of it, rhetorically at least and perhaps – who knows? – numerically. Even some of the Varadkar loyalists are conceding that they may – may – lose the membership vote, though not by the 60-40 margin that Coveney’s people predict and need.
“What I wanted to turn this into was a discussion on the future of the party in the context of where the country is and where it’s going,” he says.
He is measured and careful, impossible to stop when he gets going. He’s lively, but his voice is tired. Not previously noted as a passionate speaker, he has probably delivered more impassioned speeches since the campaign started than in the entire rest of his career.
He has been enthusiastically received, and probably won the series of debates on points (though not the last, in Cork). If he is doing better with the members (we shall know soon enough), it’s because he has won them over during the campaign.
“That’s because the membership are more interested in what the party stands for and less interested in their own careers,” he says sharply. “So let’s just call a spade a spade.
“For me, politics should be a unifying force in society, not a divisive one. Leo is a very smart guy and he’ll make a very good leader if he wins, but my approach to politics and his are quite different, and I’ve been outlining that.
“And it’s not a left and right thing . . .”
Well it is, in part.
“Well maybe it is in part. But the approach to politics of defining who your support group is and prioritising that group to maximise votes – that is not what Fine Gael should be doing.
“What we should be doing is sending out a very strong and positive message that we’re about representing everybody, whether you vote for us or you don’t, building a stronger, more unified, more content society. For me, Fine Gael has to represent everybody.”
But is there a ruthless electoral logic to his opponent’s analysis?
“But that’s where I think it’s fundamentally flawed. If you look at when Fine Gael has been at its most successful – apart from the implosion of Fianna Fáil and Ireland in 2011 – Fine Gael got 72 seats in the early 1980s when Garret FitzGerald was on a societal crusade, as well as talking about the economy. He got people talking in their homes about what it meant to be part of Irish society, what needed to change. These were controversial issues in Ireland and Garrett was the person who was forcing the conversation through Fine Gael.
“And I think that’s why an awful lot of the membership in Fine Gael are supporting me – because they like the direction in which I’m proposing to take the party, which is about trying to be a counterbalance to the cynicism and negativity of politics.”
He speaks dismissively of a politics that just wants to be popular at election time. But you have to be popular at election to time to implement your agenda, right?
“Yes, but when was Fine Gael at its most popular? When we were doing this before, when Garret FitzGerald led the party.”
Ah, Garret. His son Mark FitzGerald wrote admiringly of Coveney in The Irish Times last week, an endorsement that carries a great deal of weight in some parts of Fine Gael. Varadkar, of course, has previously said less than admiring things about Garret, although he regretted his youthful impetuousness and subsequently made his peace with Garret. But Coveney is clearly seeking FitzGerald’s mantle.
Coveney rails at how Fine Gael became transfer toxic – “because people associated us with good economic management but not actually emotionally connecting with them and their families”.
He returns to the familiar theme. “Leo says this very bluntly – if we try to represent everybody, well, then we represent nothing.” And he fundamentally disagrees?
“I fund-a-ment-ally disagree,” he urges, drumming his hand on the table for emphasis. “Because if you don’t try to represent everybody, well then who do you exclude? Who do you exclude?”