Wednesday 23 October 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'Varadkar needs to cull the cult of Leo to win election'

Taoiseach's 'team' Fine Gael message has the potential to expose Fianna Fail's lack of experience at Cabinet level

LEO’S CREW: Frances Fitzgerald and Denis Naughten have left
LEO’S CREW: Frances Fitzgerald and Denis Naughten have left
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Leo Varadkar has taken to talking about his "team" recently, as though this was a good thing, or at least an advantage that Fine Gael has over Fianna Fail. And Leo would not be talking about his "team" unless he had first road-tested the idea through an opinion poll or focus group as something that he should do, or at least worthwhile in terms of winning votes. So let us examine the thinking behind this new development at a deeper level. The conclusion I will come to is that Varadkar will have to cull the cult of Leo.

Like a curate's egg, Leo's "team" is good in parts. It includes Richard Bruton and Charlie Flanagan, and they are good ministers - good at being, at a minimum, competent. For good, or competent, substitute experienced. The Young Turks in Fine Gael think Leo should overthrow Bruton and Flanagan but that would be a mistake, because there is no substitute for experience.

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Leo was a Young Turk once. So are Eoghan Murphy and Simon Harris, and the consensus now is that they are bad ministers. In fairness, it is not difficult to see how that consensus has been arrived at, but let us not be cruel.

There are several others in Leo's team who could be described as neither good nor bad, which at least has the merit of being not bad.

Like, Paschal Donohoe - he was regarded as good once, until he started to spend money like a drunken sailor on shore leave, on a children's hospital and rural broadband, for example, and is now thought to be, at best, not a bad finance minister - sometimes good, but as Eamon Dunphy would say, not great. You get the picture.

This is not intended to be one of those marks-out-of-10 analyses of the Cabinet, however. There are two points to make: first, the "team" message Varadkar has taken to emphasising has the potential to damage Fianna Fail; second, and more intriguingly, the real significance behind "team" Fine Gael is that Varadkar has come to realise it is actually he who is the problem in this Government.

Let me set out how Varadkar has taken to emphasising his "team". At Fine Gael's think-in last week, the takeaway for many was his setting a preferred date for the general election as May 2020. This is not what struck me. What struck was his repeated reference to his "team". When you follow Varadkar closely, you notice these things - something he has not said before.

For example, early in the speech he said: "We have the best team and the best plans." So far, so humdrum; but later, in relation to Fianna Fail: "And they do not have the team to match ours."

This represents a departure for Leo Varadkar. For three years, his Government has been built around the likeness and image of its great leader: Leo jogging in the park; Leo filling the dishwasher; Leo posting a high-level security meeting on Twitter; Leo the statesman in Europe; Leo standing up to the DUP; Leo with Kylie; with George Clooney and Amal; Leo with Matt; Leo in a Canali suit. Leo this, Leo that and Leo the other. Much spin but little substance.

Meanwhile, nothing was actually getting done. The housing crisis is worsening; the health services are still a mess, Government by press release but little follow through. And a hard Brexit and border on the horizon. Or as Micheal Martin put it last week, Fianna Fail's message in the by-elections will be one of "delivery and change". Whatever about change, delivery is certainly the issue.

Last week, the Irish Examiner reported, from its poll of farmers, that Leo Varadkar was now less popular than Simon Coveney, Micheal Martin, or even Enda Kenny at his lowest point.

In fact, this is something first stated here last March, six months ago. And it is not just among farmers, but everybody. The media may rave about Leo on the steps of Government Buildings, in a Canali suit, alongside a ramshackle Boris Johnson, but the public is not buying into the image any more.

Anyway, we like our ramshackle politicians too: Garret FitzGerald in odd socks, or was it odd shoes; Bertie in an anorak. Looking good is fine, but resolving problems is where it is at.

It is as though, in their mind's eye, people imagine Leo powdered and bewigged, an 18th Century figure, elaborately artificial in the age of elegance, at court in the halls of Europe, a prince of the art of high politics, certainly - grand and all, but that still doesn't butter many parsnips back home.

And in recent months, it is as though Varadkar has come to realise this - hence his now bigging up of his "team". More likely, focus group research shows Fianna Fail to have a problem in this regard, which the flamboyant prince of politics intends to exploit: "They do not have the team to match ours."

Can you name the Fianna Fail front bench and their portfolios? OK, without portfolio? OK, let's say seven of the frontbench. How about five? You get the picture. This has been a problem for Fianna Fail since the last election. And the problem has been compounded by the confidence and supply arrangement, which has kept the front bench on the leash, unable to carve out their own individual, or collective identity.

And this is what Varadkar intends to exploit. He has been beaten, ends up, by the most popular leader, if not politician in the country, Micheal Martin. Perversely, Martin's dedication to confidence and supply has exposed his own front bench to have minimal experience, untested, a risk if you like at a time of uncertainty. There is no substitution for experience, after all.

When it comes, the election will still be presidential in style: Varadkar vs Martin, but Leo has also served notice. He intends to turn the campaign into one of "team", or Cabinet, and as he sees it Fianna Fail has the makings of, at best, half a Cabinet.

Fianna Fail will see it differently, of course. Experience has to start somewhere, and there is always Murphy and Harris to kick around. The real story, though, is that Leo Varadkar will have to fall on his own ego to win the election.

And he is prepared to do it, too. How fascinating.

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