Wednesday 26 April 2017

Profile: Varadkar is tipped to win - but that could prove a handicap in this contest

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar Photo: Tony Gavin
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar Photo: Tony Gavin
John Downing

John Downing

The good news is that this leadership contest is seen as Leo Varadkar's to lose. And the bad news? Well it is that, given the current uncertainty surrounding the manner and timing of Enda Kenny's exit, it is not a great position to be in.

"If Leo is seen as being unduly pushy and pressurising Mr Kenny, it could backfire. The parliamentary party middle ground might be alienated," one veteran TD summed up.

Even before Mr Varadkar was elected to Leinster House in May 2007, he was being talked about as a potential future leader. Up to now his life has been mainly medicine and politics, with the latter taking precedence for the greater part of the past decade.

He is perceived at Leinster House as being a sizeable bit ahead of his rival Simon Coveney, with whom he has always had a cordial relationship. But it is also thought he really needs a speeded-up contest, something Enda Kenny is keeping him and everyone else guessing about.

Aged just 38, he has two full decades of political activism in Fine Gael, a period which has seen him abandon his role as a right-wing polemicist and adopt a more centrist liberal stance. Supporters insist that he is acceptable to more traditional rural Fine Gael stock who are not bothered about his declaration in January 2015 that he is gay.

Read More: It's Leo's to lose, but Simon will give him a run for his money in this race

Those same supporters are equally keen to stress his mother's rural roots from a farm in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, to balance his father's origins in India. He also has a good mix of political youth and experience, starting his career on South Dublin County Council in 2004.

Leadership

Since March 2011, he has served as Tourism and Transport Minister, Health Minister, and is currently Social Protection Minister. He has very assiduously cultivated the backbenches and his staff have been careful to handle TDs' and senators' queries.

One Fine Gael activist recalls travelling a road near Mallow during the local election campaign in the late spring of 2014, and coming on a group of party canvassers accompanying their local party councillor. The activist pulled up his car just as a heavy shower of rain cleared, and out of a nearby hedge came Leo Varadkar who was also lending a hand in the local canvass.

He has been campaigning for the leadership for a very long time and has the benefit of two accomplished advisers in Brian Murphy, who manages his ministerial office, and Nick Miller who handles communications.

Read More: Profile: Strait-laced 'safer candidate' needs to show some more charisma

He has spent much of the past nine months rebuilding relationships with the Independents who were disenchanted by him during coalition talks. But doubts persist about his conciliatory skills.

Mr Varadkar has made few errors in his three ministerial terms. Supporters argue he made progress during two years as health minister, stabilising services after Dr James Reilly's ill-starred stewardship.

Read More: Varadkar suffers blow in leadership race as 'Judas' claims sweep through the FG ranks

The supporters further argue that he introduced free GP care for under-sixes and people over 70, and prevented the Government taking "another water charge fiasco" in the shape of Universal Health Insurance. But critics cite his under-achievements in health as presaging the danger of something similar as Taoiseach.

Irish Independent

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