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Is the race for Fine Gael leader over before it begins?

If the big question yesterday was: Why did Leo Varadkar retire?

The big question today is this: Who will succeed him?

Things move that quickly in the brutal world of Irish politics.

If the rumours are true, Minister Simon Harris plans to blitz the campaign today with a string of endorsements which he hopes will propel him into an unassailable position.

Expect some ministers, TDs, senators and MEPs to declare in the coming hours that Simon Harris is Fine Gael’s best choice for leader.

He will declare his candidacy with some fanfare. Indeed, some endorsements began to roll-in last night on social media.

The President of Young Fine Gael, Eoghan Gallagher, declared that Simon Harris has been “… a great friend to both me and Young Fine Gael, and would make a great leader of Fine Gael and Taoiseach.”

Cllr Anna Grainger from Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown opined: “I first met Minister Simon Harris circa 14 years ago and predicted then that he would not only one day be the party leader but also Taoiseach. I believe that time is now.”

Simon Harris is expected to declare his intent to become Fin Gael leader today

Cork City Cllr Shane O’Callaghan was definitive: “I believe that the best person to lead our country and the Fine Gael party is Minister Simon Harris.”

The structure of the leadership contest was framed last night by the Fine Gael Executive Council.

Nominations to become the next party leader will open at 10am today and close next Monday at 1pm, with candidates requiring the backing of 6 TDs, Senators or MEPs.

The open question is whether a contest will happen at all.

As it stands, deputy leader Simon Coveney has ruled himself out.

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys have yet to clarify their positions.

Both are wily politicians and capable campaigners.

Heather Humphreys (L) and Paschal Donohue (R) have yet to clarify if they will replace Leo Varadkar as leader of Fine Gael

If either, or both, contest the election then Simon Harris has a real battle on his hands.

Some on the Fine Gael Executive Council believe it would be good for the party to have a contest.

For example, Senator Regina Doherty said last night she would prefer it if there was an election to decide who leads the party.

She declared on the steps of the Fine Gael headquarters: “I think it would be healthy for us… I think we have a number of people who could fill the boots.”

That position was backed by outgoing Louth TD Fergus O’Dowd, although some of his colleagues told me later that they’re unconvinced about the merits of having an internal party row in the run-up to the European Parliament and Local Elections this June.

Mr O’Dowd also intrigued listeners to RTÉ Radio’s ‘Late Debate, with Colm O’Mongain’ by suggesting that some Fine Gael deputies, who previously said that they will retire, might reconsider given Leo Varadkar’s announcement that he’s to step down.

Read More:
Simon Coveney rules himself out of Fine Gael leadership contest
Leo Varadkar: Ireland’s youngest Taoiseach moves on after two terms

But if the rumoured Harris strategy works, then maybe there’ll be a coronation rather than a contest.

It was suggested to me late last night, by one Fine Gael senior source, that Simon Harris may have already attracted the support of nearly half the parliamentary party.

Under the Fine Gael electoral college system, having the parliamentary party in your pocket affords any candidate a crucial advantage.

Fine Gael’s 54 TDs, senators and MEPS account for 65% of the total vote; the 20,000 party members accounting for 25%; and 249 local representatives account for the remaining 10%.

And Simon Harris would be aware of that more than most.

After all, he was the campaign manager for Simon Coveney when he failed to beat Leo Varadkar in the Fine Gael leadership contest of 2017.

Coveney won the membership but, crucially, Varadkar won the backing of the parliamentary party.

And it was Dublin West TD who was crowned Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach.

As the expected endorsements for Simon Harris begin to pile up today, his potential rivals will be trying to calibrate if he’s already got the victory in the bag.

But will today’s strategy work?

It shouldn’t take us too long to find out.

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