HAS ANYONE noticed that of the two junior ministers now increasingly mentioned as possible Fine Gael leadership rivals to senior minister Simon Harris, both of them – Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Peter Burke – collaborated with Leo Varadkar (and Martin Heydon) in that income tax break initiative for the ‘squeezed middle’? Not that it helped any of them as it impressed few and only added to Vlad’s leadership problem while also denting slightly the reputation of MacNeill and Burke.
Yet the trio’s move illustrates that the dilemma for Simon Harris’s leadership bid is threefold. The first of these – the return of Helen McEntee as justice minister – is already discounted by most party members as she is not as highly regarded as when first elevated by Varadkar.
Secondly, and more crucially, Harris knows that possession of leadership is always a hugely powerful launch pad for a contest with favoured ministers and other sinecures in place. He also knows that Vlad and his officer corps wiped out Simon Coveney’s cavalry in the 2017 battle before they could muster a charge. The real possibility of a repeat, despite Varadkar’s weakened reputation, is a deterrent to a premature move by Harris.
The third issue is also one of timing. Right now MacNeill and Burke are seen as capable and popular party personalities, with Burke having an advantage with his farming background and a Mullingar town-rural base – a big factor given national sensitivities in FG’s base right now.
However, Simon Harris has been a senior and successful minister for seven years now and a junior minister for two years.
Burke is highly accomplished but has been a junior minister for only three years, while MacNeill has been in junior ministerial office for just six months.
This is where catch-22 timing comes in for Harris. If he bides his time waiting for a party crisis arising from a poor local and EU election, then it may not be critical enough for him to move on Varadkar, who could be waiting for him anyway. But if FG does not have a disastrous general election and achieves possible re-election – not out of the question – Burke and MacNeill are very likely to be Cabinet members and growing stronger with time.
In any case, Vlad’s taxation move with the duo indicates a unified block forming against Harris, either in defence of the current leader or in favour of one of the other two in time.
It looks as though the main chance for Simon Harris will come if or when FG loses the next general election.