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Leo Varadkar: Clear-thinking, decisive politician without the common touch

Varadkar achieved much personally but leaves unfinished business in housing and health with limited electoral success for Fine Gael

In his first week in the Dáil in 2007, Leo Varadkar set out the traits that would – more or less – mark him out as a politician. He was 28 years of age and in a Dáil debate, he faced Bertie Ahern, who had just won his third general election in a row. Varadkar went for the jugular.

Ahern was “devious and cunning” and his story about his personal finances did not stack up, he asserted.

“What the Taoiseach has done is no different from what Liam Lawlor, Charles Haughey, Michael Lowry and Ray Burke did.”

The attack was notable not only for being precocious but also for identifying Varadkar as a true-blue ideological Christian Democrat.

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Of Ahern, he said: “History will judge him, in some ways, as a successful Taoiseach. It will also judge his years as Taoiseach as a lost opportunity to achieve great things done in other booms such as the Adenauer years in Germany or the postwar years in America.”

His assessment of Ahern was prescient, given what happened later that year.

As for Varadkar, it is a bit early to deliver a full assessment of his time at the helm of the country. Even now, though, we know that like Ahern he will be judged in some ways as a successful taoiseach but also as one who failed in several key aspects.

He himself has pointed to success with the economy, with achieving full employment, with social progress and the manner in which his governments have grappled with Brexit, Covid, the war in Ukraine and with Gaza.

As against that, in his time as Taoiseach he has presided over record homelessness, steeply rising house prices and rents, and a litany of failed promises on housing, particularly pledges to build more homes and falling well short of the estimated 50,000 homes a year that are required to address the years-long housing crisis.

While the health services are extravagantly funded, the HSE seems to be in a state of permanent crisis, as illustrated by record trolley numbers at University Hospital Limerick as recently as last month.

Of late, immigration has become one of the great challenges of the global political landscape of the post-Covid 2020s. More than 100,000 war refugees from Ukraine have arrived in Ireland since Russia’s invasion in February 2022 and there has been a sudden spike in the number of asylum seekers. The Government has struggled to cope with hundreds of mostly young men forced to sleep on the streets and in makeshift campsites. Shortcomings in the Government’s immigration policy and its implementation – exacerbated by the housing crisis – has been exploited by the far right, which in turn has complicated the management of this policy.

Varadkar has called time as Taoiseach at the start of his third decade in politics and his 21st year as an elected representative. The son of an Indian GP and a nurse from Co Waterford, he was already committed to a career in politics by the time he graduated in medicine from Trinity College Dublin.

In an interview with The Irish Times in 2010 he said: “Some people arrive into a party through an intellectual process. I had an ideological connection to a party. A big part of it was the values of the party. It told people the truth even when they did not want to hear it.”

In his 20s, Varadkar was a classic Christian Democrat, a free market proponent and socially conservative. His faith in the free market has never wavered.

“Fine Gael needs to be Fine Gael and needs to stand its ground. It should not sacrifice its politics for a position in Government. We need to stand over our policies when negotiating a programme for Government,” he said.

However, his social outlook was usurped by his own lived experience in the rapidly changing Ireland of the new millennium, not least his coming out as a gay man.

As a politician Varadkar portrayed himself as a straight-talker, sometimes to the cost of his Fine Gael colleagues, not least Alan Shatter during the Garda whistleblower controversy.

The adjectives used to describe his attributes were bright, articulate, policy-oriented, clear-thinking and very ambitious. There were other not-so-complimentary adjectives: arrogant, precocious, abrasive, insensitive.

Varadkar was on the wrong side of the leadership tussle between Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton in 2010 but was nonetheless appointed back to the Fine Gael front bench.

As a minister he had mixed fortunes: competent in Transport and Sport and – later – in Enterprise. However, he was another in a long list of health ministers who struggled and failed to make a success of that portfolio.

The anti-fraud Department of Social Welfare campaign that he fronted as minister there in 2017 – claiming that “Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All” – and his declaration to lead a party for “people who get up early in the morning” in his campaign to be leader of Fine Gael showed his capacity to court controversy.

He defeated Simon Coveney to become leader of the party and Taoiseach in June 2017, at the age of 38. He won the vote of the Oireachtas but Coveney won the popular vote. His personal electoral success has never transferred into the same kind of success for Fine Gael; the party lost votes (almost 90,000) and seats (15) in 2020, the only general election Varadkar led the party into.

Varadkar can be socially awkward and does not have the common touch. He has always found it difficult to do small talk, to show public emotion or empathy, or do the tactile ‘meet and greet’ that so many Irish politicians do naturally. This reporter was on a visit with him to Ethiopia where he walked around a refugee camp wearing sunglasses with his hands in his pocket, looking like a bored teenager.

However, in the end-of-day interviews it was clear the experience had really impacted deeply on him even though he had not shown it in the same way as others.

His resignation statement on the steps of Government Buildings on Wednesday was one of the very few times in his career in which he has shown public emotion.

His ability to articulate clear views and set out thought-through strategies – without sugaring them – has balanced that social awkwardness throughout his career. He was taoiseach when abortion was legalised, during critical Brexit negotiations, and when the pandemic struck and was able to project calmness and a sense of being in control during those crises.

The party has had mixed electoral success during his tenure, and would have gone into opposition in 2020 were it not for the complicated and indecisive results of the election. The retirement of 10 TDs in the run-up to the next election did not bode well for Fine Gael’s electoral prospects, which was already on a downward trajectory after 13 years in power. There is no doubt that the need to find a new stimulus to ward off a big election defeat must have played a part in his decision to leave the stage at this time.

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