Monday 20 January 2020

Varadkar will get a very short political honeymoon - if he is allowed one at all

Leo Varadkar has been talked about for the highest political office since he was first elected to the Dáil in May 2007. Picture: Gerry Mooney
Leo Varadkar has been talked about for the highest political office since he was first elected to the Dáil in May 2007. Picture: Gerry Mooney
John Downing

John Downing

Now let's see whether Leo Varadkar is as good at doing the job as he was at getting it. His parliamentary colleagues in Fine Gael are sold on the hope that he can pull together an election campaign to outflank the "auld enemy" Fianna Fáil next time out.

More importantly, the rest of the nation wants continued economic development, in the teeth of Brexit and a world economy upset by US President Donald Trump, accompanied by a better sharing-out of the fruits of that hoped-for economic progress.

Thus, there is huge pressure on Leo, who has made world headlines as the son of an Indian immigrant, and the first openly gay government minister to become the designated leader of the Irish Government.

He is already leader of Fine Gael, the biggest Dáil party, and on Tuesday week next is expected to be elected Ireland's 13th Taoiseach and the 14th head of government since the State's foundation in 1922.

Leo Varadkar has been talked about for the highest political office since he was first elected to the Dáil in May 2007.

He has a life-long interest in politics and an ambition from childhood to hold government office.

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At Leinster House his Fine Gael leadership election campaign has inspired admiration across all parties and none over the past fortnight.

The campaign was just two days old when it was already clear from public declarations that he had the majority of the 73 TDs, senators and MEPs, who hold 65pc of the weighted vote.

At four hustings held for Fine Gael members he performed well.

Even if he was pipped overall by his rival Simon Coveney, he still gave a very good account of himself.

This hustings' performance - which resulted in a huge number of members backing Coveney - takes a deal of the gloss off his victory.

It means Varadkar will have to ensure his rival is given a strong Cabinet role.

Forging unity within Fine Gael was always going to be the first priority after this election campaign. The membership victory for Coveney only makes that goal all the more urgent.

Read More: Backbenchers believe new leader can unify Fine Gael as race for promotion escalates

But there are other huge challenges which will enmesh with fundamental questions to be asked about Varadkar's real leadership qualities.

Let's also recall, we have been here before when Brian Cowen succeeded Bertie Ahern in Fianna Fáil and Government Buildings back in May 2008.

Brian Cowen's term ended in calamity - his much-vaunted potential for leadership evaporated.

For everyone's sake there will be hopes recent history is not repeated.

Supporters of Leo Varadkar will point to lists of achievements on three ministerial watches spanning almost six years.

As Social Protection Minister since May 2016 he has delivered two weeks of paternity benefit; PRSI reforms for the self-employed in Budget 2017; the 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.

Read More: Coveney lacked the killer instinct needed to secure the biggest job in Irish politics

As Health Minister from July 2014 to February 2016, the following are cited: 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.

There are other achievements listed for his term as Transport and Tourism Minister from March 2011 to July 2014.

Some of these claimed achievements are contested as happenstance during his ministerial term, or something foisted on the Fine Gael-led Coalition by Fianna Fáil underpinning it.

The welfare increases may have had more to do with Willie O'Dea of Fianna Fáil.

But that is not the real point here.

The most important thing to remember is the quantum distance between being minister and being Taoiseach.

To lead the country, especially heading a hybrid minority Coalition, personnel management skills and conciliation are a huge requirement.

In the 70 days of Government-making talks, from February to May 2016, Leo Varadkar did not display these skills in abundance.

The first and biggest manifestation of the Fine Gael unity challenge will be to deliver a new-look Cabinet team which downplays potential divisions.

He has huge expectations among his supporters - and not enough jobs to make everyone happy.

Immediately after that comes the clearest manifestation of the economic challenges.

Read More: Proud mother can't hold back the tears as Leo refers to his father's journey here

He must get agreement on the October Budget in an era of shrinking available funds and increasing expectations.

All of this is compounded by the urgent need to get a good outcome from public pay talks which are currently under way.

Beyond that it will fall to him to lead the Government's tiptoe through the minefield that is the repeal of the Eighth Amendment on abortion and replacing it with something more durable. Finding unity around a tenable compromise here will be a very tough task.

The screaming need for Garda reform and the future of the embattled Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan will loom large again very soon.

Dáil committee hearings will resume within weeks.

That listing is far from exhaustive and politics always teaches us to expect other unexpected challenges.

It is clear that Leo Varadkar will only get a short political honeymoon, if any at all, and his "brightest and best" image will be vulnerable from very early on.

Irish Independent

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