Is the bookies’ favourite the best choice? Don’t bet on it

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By Cormac Lucey, in the Irish Sunday Times

On Sunday February 19, Paddy Power, the bookmakers, issued a press release stating that they had suspended betting on the next Fine Gael leader following a series of large amounts that were wagered on Leo Varadkar.

At the start of that day the social protection minister had odds of 6-5, suggesting a 45 per cent chance of victory. By the time betting closed that afternoon he had been backed into odds suggesting an 80 per cent likelihood of a win.

In the meantime, Paddy Power has re-opened betting on the issue. Yesterday morning you could get 4-5 on Varadkar and 10-11 on Simon Coveney, the housing minister. You could also get odds on a host of other Fine Gael figures ranging from Frances Fitzgerald, at 22-1, to Mary Mitchell O’Connor, at 500-1.

You might wonder how both Varadkar and Coveney can be odds-on in a race in which there can be only one winner. Add up all of the probabilities implied by the bookmaker and you arrive at the illogical conclusion that the listed candidates have a combined 128 per cent probability of election. The explanation for this mystery lies in the magic of the free market and in Paddy Power’s need to make a profit.

Did somebody seek to manipulate the betting market back on Sunday February 19 to convey the impression that the leadership race was as good as over and that backing anyone other than Varadkar would be a waste of time? It’s certainly odd that the volume of betting on a political wager should reach a climax on a day when key political players were at their homes dispersed across the country, rather than gathered together in the hothouse that is Dáil Éireann.

The curious goings-on raise the question of just what will influence those who must decide who will be the next leader of Fine Gael and the country’s next taoiseach once Enda Kenny steps down. What are the key qualities needed that should guide party members?

If asked what they want in their next leader, many may simply answer “leadership” without thinking too hard about what they actually mean by that term. It is a lot easier to identify the fruits of leadership, in terms of public victories, than the ingredients of the factor that are so critical to political success.

Consider, if Fine Gael members will forgive the impertinence, Mícheál Martin’s leadership of Fianna Fáil. He has been in the job for more than six years. While he now appears to be the undisputed master of his party, he took it over in the worst possible circumstances. He had to lead it into the 2011 general election through the political wreckage of national economic meltdown.

A year later, he had to handle the resignation of Éamon Ó Cuív, the party’s deputy leader, due to unhappiness with Fianna Fáil’s stance on the European fiscal compact referendum. Martin’s position was so delicate that he didn’t appoint a new deputy leader and still hasn’t.

While last year’s general election resulted in a strong performance for Fianna Fáil — up 24 seats to 44 — it brought little relief for Martin. Instead, he had to craft his response to parliamentary mathematics in a situation where no political bloc enjoyed a Dáil majority.

Unable to form a Fianna Fáil-led government, he faced the difficult choice of either entering government with Fine Gael or supporting a minority Fine Gael-led coalition. He opted for the latter of course and, with his party rising in the opinion polls as Fine Gael falls, it would appear that he made the right choice.

What Martin’s period in charge of Fianna Fáil demonstrates is that the foundation of good political leadership is making the right choices and being patient enough to wait for the payback. It’s about taking considered risks that will stretch your support base, but not too far. It’s more political judgment and substance than image, although the Fianna Fáil leader is no slouch in the latter department.

Another key leadership quality is temperament. It was said of Franklin D Roosevelt that he had a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament. The same might be said of Enda Kenny. I can’t recall him ever saying much in anger.

Both Kenny and Roosevelt have delivered success even though many would have predicted failure. Politics is a team sport and leaders need to bring their supporters with them. They can manage that better with empathy and good temperament than with intellect (which can, after all, always be hired).

A final key leadership attribute is energy. Kenny and Bertie Ahern both have energy levels akin to those of the Duracell Bunny. They can keep going late at night and still be up very early the next morning. Brian Cowen, on the other hand, had low energy levels. Apart from sporadic forays where he demonstrated his high intelligence, his leadership of Fianna Fáil and the country made little impact.

The members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party — comprising TDs, senators and MEPs — share 65 per cent of the votes to determine the party’s new leader. They should ignore the bookies’ odds and focus on which of their prospective leaders is similar to Micheál Martin, however unpalatable that task may be.



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