Saturday 23 June 2018

'Everyone adored him... and then he went into Fine Gael' - Leo Varadkar one year in, has his popularity peaked?

A year after becoming Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar may have hit a peak of popularity. Few doubt his ­political skill, but can he match them with ­genuine achievements?

Shift in focus: There may be fewer popular liberal causes for Leo to fight for in the near future
Shift in focus: There may be fewer popular liberal causes for Leo to fight for in the near future
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Miriam Varadkar, mother of the Taoiseach, once said of Leo's childhood: "Everyone adored him. He was adorable, a gorgeous baby - and then he went into Fine Gael."

Next Thursday marks the first anniversary of Varadkar's election as Taoiseach, and at the moment the governing party is only too happy to have him at the helm. They are blessing his novelty socks.

Sitting in his office in Government Building under the portrait of Michael Collins and basking in the glow of victory in the abortion referendum, Leo must be tempted to call an early election.

The weather has been glorious; he was feted by a crowd in Dublin Castle celebrating the Yes vote; and the RTÉ exit poll taken at the referendum shows Fine Gael on 36pc - way out in front of Fianna Fáil on 23pc.

"Leo is in campaign mode at the moment," says Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes. "He is going to party meetings around the country, and he is open to TDs' requests."

Hayes has served under a number of FG leaders, and says he has never seen his parliamentary party so united behind any of his predecessors.

Some within Fine Gael are convinced that he will call an election at any moment, while others are much more cautious and say he will not want to put his job on the line - and take an unnecessary risk.

Would it look like shallow opportunism to have an election in the aftermath of the abortion poll, when the Dáil has not passed the legislation arising from it? Or would it be seen as an appropriate time to seek a more powerful mandate - less dependent on the caprices of an eclectic assortment of independents?

Fianna Fáil and other opposition TDs have hoped for months that the shine would come off the young Taoiseach, and that they would be able to ruffle his Canali suit with a few telling blows.

There have been crises during his term as Taoiseach - from the Frances Fitzgerald resignation to the cervical smear scandal - but Leo seems to have somehow ridden nonchalantly above it all, a celebrity floating in his own social media bubble.

Embodiment of modern Ireland

Last Sunday, on Twitter, he found time to emote about a 175-year-old Oregon maple tree that came crashing down in the Front Square of his alma mater, Trinity College. "Really sad. Loved that tree," he tweeted to his 164,000 followers.

One senior party figure said Leo is popular because he is the embodiment of what modern Ireland likes to thinks of itself - pro-European, diverse and different.

He appeals to the under 60s who are liberal on social issues, but are more inclined to self-reliance than any kind of socialism.

Those who favour a snap election will argue that now is the time to go to the country because Leo is never as likely to be as popular. If, as the polls suggest, they could win 36pc of the vote, they would have little difficulty in forming a strong government.

The economy continues to grow, and unemployment at 5.8pc has fallen to its lowest level for a decade.

Although it was perhaps the most significant political event of his administration, the referendum has in some ways been a distraction from some of the country's other pressing problems - including the housing crisis and state of our health services.

While calling an election would be a gamble, there are risks involved in hanging on for another few months, or even until next spring of next year.

Until now, the issue of Brexit has had positive political effects for Leo as he has subjected the British side to forthright criticisms.

As the Northern commentator Patrick Murphy puts it, the fear of a hard border has unified nationalism, by substituting "Brits Out" with "Brexit Out".

And Leo Varadkar has been the unlikely standard-bearer of this new nationalism just as much as Mary McDonald. Who would have thought that a thorn in the side of Sinn Féin such as Varadkar would launch the Féile an Phobail festival in the heart of republican West Belfast?

But political gain may turn to economic pain for Leo in the coming months as British politicians fail to get to grips with the border issue.

At the moment, Leo, Simon Coveney and EU negotiators must feel like a football team standing and waiting while the opposing side engages in fisticuffs amongst themselves.

Edgar Morgenroth, professor of economics at Dublin City University, says: "There are very dark clouds on the horizon of the border. The British side may be unable to square the circle - where they can leave the customs union and single market, and keep the border open."

Professor Morgenroth says Leo Varadkar has outsourced Brexit negotiations from his department to Simon Coveney's Department of Foreign Affairs.

"The Irish Government have so far done things correctly. One of the next big calls they will have to make soon is whether sufficient progress has been made to move on to the next stage of negotiation."

The coming few weeks are likely to be crucial for the country as negotiators try to work out a solution to the border problem in preparation for a European Council meeting at the end of the month.

Time is fast running out for Leo and Simon Coveney as they try to find a solution soon, rather than leaving the Irish question to the deadline for an overall deal in October.

Varadkar has benefited politically from the two big referendum victories - the marriage equality referendum after he came out as gay as a minister, and the abortion referendum as Taoiseach when he eventually endorsed a radical proposal.

But there may be fewer popular liberal causes to fight in the near future. As time goes on he may be judged more on his approach to intractable problems such as the shortage of affordable housing and health.

Bizarre situation

His Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy is regarded by civil servants as extremely diligent but he is struggling to make inroads into homelessness figures that hover around 10,000, including almost 4,000 children.

As at least one bemused observer of the housing crisis observed, we have now reached a bizarre situation where we put tourists in homes through sites such as Airbnb, and the homeless are put up in hotels.

The Trinity College economist Ronan Lyons this week estimated that Ireland will need at least 40,000 new homes every year in the coming period. That is over double the amount that were built in Ireland last year.

The young newly-registered voters who cheered liberal Leo after the abortion referendum may turn against him if they find it impossible to afford even the most basic accommodation.

For the foreseeable future, prices of homes and rents will continue to rise. Despite six years in office, Fine Gael has been slow in ramping up the construction of social housing and delivery has been painfully slow over the past year.

A vacant site levy is supposed to discourage land hoarding across the country, but according to one housing expert, some local authorities do not even have a register of empty sites.

When he came into office a year ago, promising to create a "republic of opportunity", Varadkar described taking action on climate change as one of the "great international causes of our time".

But so far, environmental critics argue our actual achievements in this area have amounted to little more than hot air.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently reported that Ireland will achieve "at best" a 1pc reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, well short of a 20pc legally-binding target.

After their lap of honour in the aftermath of the referendum victory, Varadkar and his Health Minister Simon Harris will have to deal with bread and butter issues in health that never seem to go away.

There are still too many patients left on trolleys in emergency wards, and the numbers on waiting lists to see specialists continue to grow. Recent figures from the National Treatment Purchase Fund showed there were over 700,000 on waiting lists around the country in April.

Cervical smear scandal

The fall-out from the cervical smear scandal - where screening failed to pick up cancers and women were not properly informed about audits of tests by the HSE - will focus attention on Leo's period as Minister for Health from July 2014 until May 2016, when many of these events occurred.

So far, there has been no evidence linking him with the non-disclosure of information, but questions will continue to be asked about how effective he has been as a medical doctor in tackling our health crisis.

While his actual achievements in areas such as health, housing and the environment have been limited, even his detractors concede that he has been a political success.

When he became Taoiseach, there were fears that he would not have the political savvy to keep a disparate government including independents together, while at the same maintaining the confidence-and-supply deal with Fianna Fáil intact. On that score he has proved his doubters wrong.

Finian McGrath, who attends cabinet as "Super Junior" Minister for Disability issues, has served with both Enda Kenny and Varadkar.

"There is a new positive energy around the cabinet table since he took over. Leo is very inclusive, open to new ideas, and respectful of dissenting voices," he says.

"I got on fine with Enda personally, but he was a more old-fashioned Taoiseach. He barely put up with Independents."

Leo may not have the same ability to work a room as Enda Kenny, but Varadkar pays close attention to communicating with TDs and the party grassroots.

While the inner circle of handlers around a Taoiseach can sometimes take on the impenetrable and arrogant aura of the West Wing, Leo's advisors are said to be much more open to representations from the outside.

In spare moments travelling in the back of a car, he sends WhatsApp messages to party workers on the ground.

There is no perfect time for Leo to call an election in the coming year - and he has a number of hurdles to cross.

Any electoral schedule would have to take into account the prelude and aftermath of the budget on October 9, and the abortion legislation which could take months to go through the Oireachtas.

It is hard for any government to generate a feel-good factor in January or February, and Leo may not want to fight an election in March, when Britain leaves the EU. Soon after that, a general election would clash with European and local elections on May 24.

One close political ally of the Taoiseach told Review: "There is no grand plan to orchestrate an election, but we are ready for it when it comes. We could have the posters up in two or three days."

When he was elected Taoiseach a year ago, Leo talked in grandiose terms: "I would like Ireland to become what Michael Collins described as the shining light unto the world."

He has certainly made a global impact, disproportionate to the size of the country, but Varadkar will need to make progress on issues such as housing, health and the environment if he is to be lauded for genuine achievements as much as political skill.

@KimBielenberg

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