Saturday 7 December 2019

Shane Ross: Leo, you are the Jose Mourinho of Fine Gael

SPECIAL ONE: Leo Varadkar’s habit of being honest is a bad career move
SPECIAL ONE: Leo Varadkar’s habit of being honest is a bad career move

Shane Ross

Dear Leo, Be not afraid. The decision to put you, an instinctive free marketeer, into an overspending department was no accident. A good place to clip the wings of a pretender to the throne.

Your first test is the budget. You are going to be humbled, forced to beg for an extra €500m. And you are going to be taught to play the budget game the old way under Fine Gael rules. You must not give interviews or speak openly to the media unless you are on message.

In theory, no minister speaks publicly of the budget in advance. In practice, they leak it instead. That is the Fine Gael way. Remember how our new European commissioner, Phil Hogan, lost his ministerial head 19 years ago after budget details were leaked? Phil was the fall guy. One of Phil's advisers was foolish enough to despatch a fax containing budget details prematurely.

The cabinet is awash with budget leakers. So another game is being played out. Some ministers jockey for position in advance by making public demands for their department. Others claim credit for the good news in the budget months before it is agreed.

Enda put you in the Department of Health to bury you, not to let you run riot. He thought that a spell in "Angola" would soften your cough, keep you busy with massive over-runs, truculent consultants, militant nurses and health insurance crises. He saw you as presiding over permanent turmoil, busy taking flak on behalf of the Government. In the meantime, many in Fine Gael hope that your rapidly rising ratings will tank.

Last week, you committed the cardinal sin. You strayed way outside your portfolio into broader budget territory. You suggested that workers might have "an extra fiver or tenner" in their pay packet after the Budget. You raised budget expectations at a time when the Taoiseach and Tanaiste are frantically trying to dampen them down. Enda lost the rag.

You know - and I know - that this budget is going to be the best budget for six years. You know - and I know - that there will be tax cuts. So do Enda and Michael and Joan and Brendan. Your problem is that you told the truth. You do not know how to - or you refuse to - play the budget game.

That honest habit you have of speaking your mind is a bad career move. You have already, within weeks of your appointment, rubbished the last minister, James Reilly's, plans for the hospitals and the health sector. You have dumped on the deputy leader of your own party. You are a heretic.

Today you are to the cabinet what Jose Mourinho is to the soccer premiership, an uncontrollable genius, a maverick with a following. You are Fine Gael's Special One.

That is why the Taoiseach singled you out for a dressing- down. He senses that the path you follow has disciples, fans. Your youth means that you have escaped from the tribal contamination that afflicts all the old guard in the Cabinet. You see the Budget as a subject for open discussion, not a political tool to be manipulated in the media for the advantage of the Coalition. You are a threat to the prevalent political and financial ethos of secrecy. If telling the truth caught on, God knows where the economy would end up.

It must be tough for you, Leo, watching as others blurt on about the budget. Was it not the Taoiseach himself who promised in July that the government would "reduce the 52pc tax rate for low and middle income workers, starting with this Budget in October"?

I hope you reminded the Taoiseach of this at last week's cabinet meeting after he had given you a public rebuke? I hope you told him that he himself was the basis of your utterly reasonable conclusion that many workers could expect an increase of five or ten euro a week. If employees are removed from the 52pc bracket, as he promised, then they can expect modest pay hikes.

What is goose for the Taoiseach is goose for you. Or so you might think. Funnily enough, others have been committing similar sins, but they are in the inner circle.

What did you think of the two teacher's pets of the Coalition breaking into budget mode just three weeks ago?

Fine Gael teacher's pet, Simon Harris, a mere junior minister in the Department of Finance, started the ball rolling by demanding tax cuts in the budget. Joan Burton's teacher's pet, Ged Nash, trumped Simon by seeking both tax cuts and wage increases. Neither of these favoured protegees got as much as a slap on the wrist for speaking out of turn. But Simon is beloved of Enda and Ged was plucked out of nowhere to become Joan's super-junior in July's Cabinet reshuffle.

Even Brendan Howlin, the minister for austerity, broke the supposed budget omerta by revealing that the budget would be a neutral one. He went so far as to say that there would be "leeway for tax cuts in the budget". Observers understand that to mean there will be little net change in either tax or spending.

The Tanaiste, Joan Burton, played to her Labour party constituency recently when she revealed that she and the Taoiseach had agreed to prioritise middle and low earners and families with children as beneficiaries of the Budget. She even spoke specifically of an "overhaul of the Universal Social Charge".

Bingo. It all sounds terribly like your "fiver or tenner" a week, Leo.

And none other than the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan was offering high hopes of income tax cuts as long ago as May, just before the European and local elections.

You do not understand the game, Leo. Only insiders are supposed to spill the best beans. No matter that you are prepared to break the bad news as well. You are in the hellhole of health because there is more bad than good news emerging from that quagmire. You were meant to sink into the swamp.

You were gutsy enough to take the hit on the death of Universal Health Insurance and to warn people that the promise to install the pipedream of no GP charges for the under-sixes was dead in the water, but you are not allowed to stray into more popular territory where others compete to tread.

Leo, you are feared, by the Fine Gael leadership. You voted against Enda for leader. That is why you are in the Cabinet. He was frightened of leaving you out. Yet they all know where your heart lies. I remember that wonderful document you wrote when in opposition which exposed Ireland as "the land of a thousand quangos". You identified 2,416 political nominees on the boards of quangos and sought widespread reforms. Such radical zeal in tackling waste in semi-State bodies has been shelved by your Coalition colleagues. Patronage not only survives, it flourishes.

Leo, last week you were right not to apologise to the Taoiseach for your outspokenness. Advocates of openness, entrepreneurs and free marketeers need your voice in Government.

Do not allow the culture of silence-control, contaminate or muzzle you.

Last week you got right up the Taoiseach's nose by telling the truth about the health service.

Keep the faith.

Your supporter from the opposition benches,

Shane Ross

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