Potential gains to left of Fine Gael but Leo Varadkar leans right

The party is looking for a candidate to tailer a message to the electorate. There are a number of considerations to make, writes Joe Leogue.

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ENDA Kenny’s successor as Fine Gael leader will have a balancing act on his hands when it comes to tailoring the party’s message for the next general election.

Talks of election strategies will be dismissed by party members but, in reality, the next two weeks will see Fine Gael endorse a leader who will be expected to outline his vision for the future of the country — and by extension signal the direction of its next election manifesto.

With the fragile nature of a Dáil propped up by a confidence and supply agreement, Fine Gael is taking the first steps in an election campaign that could come to life at any moment.

Housing Minister Simon Coveney was first out of the traps yesterday, with carefully worded remarks that attempted to appeal to those beyond Fine Gael’s conservative demographic, while at the same time seeking to retain its rural base.

While talking about “big ideas” and uniting the country, he drew particular focus to his department’s Ireland 2040 strategic planning and development framework.

“Fine Gael is a party of rural parishes as well as urban communities,” said Mr Coveney.

“That is about fundamentally rebalancing the country for the sake of Dublin as well as for the sake of other cities and towns and rural counties. I think that many people living outside of Dublin will start believing on the back of that, that actually they can look forward to a very positive, vibrant future in their part of Ireland, as well as having a plan for Dublin of course, which needs to be the most dynamic international city in the European Union,” he said.

Whoever becomes the leader will need to appease Fine Gael’s rural members, who are undoubtedly anxious about the party’s prospects outside the country’s main cities and towns. Of the 21 Fine Gael TDs who lost their seat in last year’s general election, 15 were based in rural constituencies.

Those losses came less than two years after a local election that saw Fine Gael shed 105 local authority seats across the country, and surrender its position as the largest party on 12 councils, including counties such as Clare, Cork, Leitrim, and Sligo.

Even in the outgoing Taoiseach’s home county, Fine Gael lost seats and had to share the title of largest party on Mayo County Council with a resurgent Fianna Fáil.

While the new leader will be expected to battle to maintain the party’s rural strongholds, opportunity to grow Fine Gael’s presence in urban areas will also give the new taoiseach pause for thought.

Fine Gael holds 13 of a possible 44 seats in the 11 constituencies across Dublin and Dún Laoghaire — but this is a battleground that will be heavily targeted by Fianna Fáil next time round.

By comparison, Micheál Martin’s party accounts for just six of the TDs in this area and will see the capital as fertile ground to make gains when the nation next goes to the polls.

The prospects of a Dublin taoiseach who could boost the Fine Gael seat count in the capital while curtailing the main opposition party’s opportunity for growth in the city may sway backers towards Leo Varadkar.

However the next election — and, by proxy, this leadership race — will not be won or lost solely on getting the urban/rural balance right.

Strategists from both parties will be acutely aware that between them, the share of the national vote going to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is diminishing.

Last year, the parties shared less than 50% of the total votes cast — the first time the majority of the voters did not give their first preference to either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil in a general election since the two contested polls in their current guise. Most of those other votes went to candidates to the left of both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil — notably Sinn Féin.

What Fine Gael members will need to deliberate over the next two weeks is whether the party will seek to position itself as more centrist in the next election in an attempt to woo the soft voters who gave their preferences elsewhere last time around, or look to shore up a more conservative vote.

Of course, these two are not mutually exclusive — many independent TDs in rural areas gained votes by winning over disaffected Fine Gael voters that the party will want back.

However, to the left of Fine Gael is a large landscape of potential gains fractured among a number of parties and Independents. Fine Gael’s next leader may decide there are floating votes for centre-left parties and candidates that can be won over with the right approach, one that will have to be finely balanced so as to not alienate committed supporters.

Mr Varadkar’s high-profile welfare fraud campaign may indicate his preference to bolster Fine Gael’s reputation as the “law and order” party and appeal to a conservative demographic. While yesterday was a soft launch for Mr Varadkar’s campaign via surrogates who announced their intention to back him, he starts his bid in earnest today.

Observers will cast a keen eye over Mr Varadkar’s opening speech to determine if, like his rival, he will seek to appeal to the left of Fine Gael or look to consolidate a more conservative base.

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