Saturday 18 January 2020

Leo Varadkar: Tour of the country will be tough for Taoiseach

Fine Gael

First day of canvassing for Fine Gael in Dublin Central around the North Strand area. L to R: Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and candidate Deirdre Duffy
First day of canvassing for Fine Gael in Dublin Central around the North Strand area. L to R: Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and candidate Deirdre Duffy

Strengths: Leo Varadkar's key strength going into the 2020 General Election is the simple fact that he is Taoiseach. He runs the country, has his fingers on the purse strings, and has been dishing out money to voters for the past three years. Welfare payments are up, taxes are down and almost every sports club in the country has been given some sort of a grant.

The Taoiseach has also proven himself to be a deft hand in international relations and negotiations following his Brexit summit with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Mr Varadkar is also quite a talented debater, having honed his skills the Trinity College historical society.

Weaknesses: Mr Varadkar has come a long way from the days when his colleagues considered him aloof and even slightly odd. But he can still come across as lacking empathy and overly defensive in media interviews. He prefers to find fault in criticisms of himself rather than address the issue at hand. Even if it is a homeless child or a sick elderly patient, the Taoiseach will seek to find a flaw in any accusation that his Government has let someone down. Sometimes it's best to say sorry and promise to do better.

He is also not a natural campaigner. The ground war of door-to-door canvassing has never been the Taoiseach's strong point and his interactions with the public can seem stilted and a little awkward. A leader's tour of the country will force him to interact with voters on a daily basis on a scale he has never really experienced before.

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Opportunities: The Taoiseach alone can highlight his key role in Brexit negotiations and note the relationships he has developed with other EU leaders. There is still a lot of running to be done on Brexit and Varadkar will spend the campaign detailing how he and Simon Coveney were instrumental in securing a withdrawal agreement which protected Irish interests. He can also point to the restored Northern Assembly as another example of statecraft.

The Taoiseach will also play up his liberal credentials and point to his involvement in the marriage equality and 8th amendment referendums.

Threats: Mr Varadkar may only have been Taoiseach for three years but Fine Gael has been in office for nine and a fickle electorate may be looking for change.

There have been plenty of controversies during his time in office. The billion-euro costs of the national children's hospital and Rural Broadband Plan damaged Fine Gael's image of being the financially prudent party.

Fianna Fáil poses the main threat to Fine Gael returning to power with Micheál Martin odds-on in most bookies to be the next Taoiseach.

The Fianna Fáil leader will be pushing a 'substance over spin' message during the campaign and will be eager to target Fine Gael's reliance on public relations. The Greens will also be a problem for Fine Gael, with a lot of middle-class urban voters expected to lean towards Eamon Ryan's party.

Fine Gael has ramped up its interest in environmental matters in recent times but the Greens will be the go-to party for those genuinely interested in climate action.

Irish Independent

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