Why Fine Gael's leadership will be a one-horse race

How it could all be over before it begins

Why Fine Gael's leadership will be a one-horse race

Enda Kenny (centre) Leo Varadkar (right) and Simon Coveney all smiles outside the Dail in 2010 | Image: RollingNews.ie

I wrote several weeks ago that the outer limit of it was the summer recess - because if there's a cumbersome new electoral college within Fine Gael and if there's a contest it won't be done as quickly as previously with just a Parliamentary Party meeting.

The new leader would need the summer to get in situ.

I've always believed that the shelf life of the Confidence and Supply Agreement was around 18 months. And I also believe that Fianna Fáil will, whether they really want to or not, in a situation whereby they will pull the plug on this Government in the latter half of this year - sometime in the autumn, between that and the end of the year.

Fine Gael TDs have been previously sleeping-walking, not realising that the timing of the next general election would be at Fianna Fáil's choice.

The uncertainty of the week's events and the confidence vote brought it home to them - how precarious the lifetime of this Dáil is.

And that they could find themselves in a situation with no election strategy, no leader and thrust and plunged into the dissolution of the Dáil.

And I think now that sort of complacent denial - with Brexit, a safe pair of hands and all that kind of nonsense I've been hearing since I came back from America - is now irrelevant.

They have to fast-forward and face up to the fact: if they actually went into a general election with Enda Kenny as leader having not done anything to implement the rejection of Kenny at the last election where Fine Gael lost one-third of its seats, one-third of its votes and unlike Labour didn't do a whole lot about it, the public would very quickly see the net issue of the election - 'Well if the Fine Gael party weren't prepared to get rid of him, the public wouldn't hesitate to do so'.

I can think of nothing less dismal for Fine Gael strategists than that being the main issue of the election.

So I've no doubt where we're now at is that the contest is effectively underway, the mechanics of when it will be announced and so on will be in or around Easter - his departure.

Dead man walking

But if I was betting on who will come next - in my view Leo Varadkar has a clear lead.

I believe he will win, barring accidents - but he's very anxious not to be seen to humiliate or make a preemptive strike against Enda Kenny, and such is the reticence of his campaign team to be associated with Kenny's enforced departure.

That is the only reservation they have; in reality, they believe he's been dead man walking politically for some time.

But I believe Leo has been campaigning actively, and I actually think that it's hard to see for certain who the contender against him will be.

I don't believe that Simon Coveney has a strong base of committed TDs - I heard one report today that he might have 28. I couldn't name six that will definitely support him in all circumstances.

This happened in the Tory leadership where Michael Gove was perceived, when Boris pulled out, to be a certain thing - he actually had no support.

And I think there are a number of issues with Simon's candidacy that are very problematic.

He's not from Dublin: I think a third of the seats are in the greater Dublin area and I think that's Leo's first great asset.

Secondly, he actually comes from a constituency where they could be two Fianna Fáil leaders.

Certainly odds on Michael Martin will be the next Taoiseach in my opinion, and Michael McGrath fancies himself as Taoiseach - to have the Fine Gael leader playing second fiddle to both of those is a little bit of a problem.

But I honestly believe that Simon hasn't been active in terms of setting up the infrastructure that you need to become leader to campaign.

One of the things that surprised me in speaking to TDs - and I say all this by way of observation and anecdote, I'm not a campaign supporter or involved in any way with Leo - but my job is to be a pundit and to call it as I see it.

I've been surprised at the number of constituencies where both Fine Gael TDs - and there's not too many constituencies where they have more than one TD - but where both TDs are openly supporting Leo.

Having been a veteran of heaves - both pro and anti-various leadership struggles - you could nearly always say if TD 'A' in constituency 'X' was for someone, it's nearly certain that TD 'B' would be going the other direction.

But I've been surprised in constituencies where both TDs have told me privately that whenever and wherever they're supporting Leo.