Wednesday 26 April 2017

Fundamental questions to be asked about Leo's leadership qualities

Waiting game: Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar at the launch during last year's election campaign. Photo: Tom Burke
Waiting game: Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Leo Varadkar at the launch during last year's election campaign. Photo: Tom Burke

Moving, in less than a ­decade, from ­undisputed "young pup of the Dáil" to ­"potential Taoiseach" is pretty good career progress.

Today, Leo Varadkar is four days from his 38th birthday, and there are many reasons to believe he can become leader of Fine Gael and the nation's youngest ever Taoiseach before 2017 is done.

Politicians in all parties at Leinster House agree that he is most likely to be the next leader of Fine Gael, where he has huge support in the parliamentary party.

The biggest impediment of all is the little detail that the current incumbent, Enda Kenny, has utterly no intention of vacating either post - despite a pledge not to lead his party into the next general election.

There are also issues around timing, precarious Dáil numbers, and the ever-present threat of another general election, which may be decided by Fianna Fáil.

That raises questions about whether Varadkar has the stomach for engineering a heave, bearing in mind his own bruising experiences in June 2010 as a neophyte TD, when Kenny saw off such an internal challenge.

But even parking those reservations, there are more fundamental questions to be asked about Varadkar's real leadership qualities.

Let's recall, we have been here before when Brian Cowen succeeded Bertie Ahern in Fianna Fáil and Government Buildings back in May 2008. Cowen's term ended in calamity - his much-vaunted potential for leadership evaporated.

All ministers produce their achievement lists, which are updated regularly. Varadkar's success résumé, for things happening on his three ministerial watches spanning almost six years, reads like this:

Social Protection Minister since May 6: two weeks of Paternity Benefit for fathers-to-be from September; major PRSI reforms for the self-employed in Budget 2017, securing first increases in weekly welfare payments since 2009, on top of the €5 pension increase; launching a new advisory service for distressed mortgage holders; and making a micro credit loan scheme for hard-pressed families available nationally.

Health Minister July 2014 to February 2016: securing planning permission for the New Children's Hospital, where construction work has now begun; introducing universal free GP care for under-sixes and over 70s; launching the Public Health Alcohol Bill; the new maternity strategy; and Ireland's first sexual health strategy.

Transport, Tourism and Sport Minister 2011 to 2014: Kick-starting Ireland's bid for the Rugby World Cup; linking the two Luas lines; granting independence to Shannon Airport; staging The Gathering 2013; securing the 9pc VAT rate for hospitality services; restarting work on the National Sports Campus.

It is a workmanlike list which would compare well with that of many other diligent and able ministers. It must be weighed against the dire recession of 2011-14 and better government coffers in the past three years. But it is in its way unremarkable, lacking any clues of stellar leadership quality. The list by its nature naturally omits what he did not do as Health Minister, a job he left at the first opportunity. In the run up to the 2007 general election, and his Dáil debut, he was a young hospital doctor who naturally cited improvements in the health services as the prime issue, though not the only subject, motivating him to enter politics.

Yet on his watch in the Health Department, he managed and coped - but did not deliver any kind of fundamental change or improvement. Would his elevation to the post of Taoiseach mean more of the same?

Varadkar came into politics portraying himself as something of a right-wing ideologue. Supporters cite his toning down of such views as evidence of maturity and political pragmatism.

But here is an assessment from another former cabinet colleague: "Leo Varadkar has often been portrayed as a right-winger. But he's no such thing. His most important thing is his career which is based on being popular, firstly within Fine Gael, and then within the country at large. It helps that he is a good reader of the public mood."

It all suggests we might be looking at replacing Kenny with a younger, more urbane, Enda Kenny.

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