Under the coalition agreement, the Fine Gael leader returns as Taoiseach in just under 12 weeks. Can he revive his party’s fortunes amid growing doubts about his combative style?
It is the big handover that will make or break the career of Leo Varadkar. In December, Micheál Martin will pack up his belongings in the Taoiseach’s office, most likely for the last time, and hand the baton back to the Fine Gael leader. Varadkar will become the first leader since Charles Haughey to return to the job after a break in his service as taoiseach.
Haughey returned for his third, and arguably most fruitful, stint in 1987, and for Varadkar’s supporters it will be the second coming.
Floundering in the polls as they trail Sinn Féin by some distance, Fine Gael stalwarts are pinning their hopes on Varadkar’s return to spark a recovery in the party. But is it just wishful thinking?
For Fine Gael supporters, it is sobering to think that in June 2020, as he neared the end of his period as a caretaker taoiseach in the early months of the pandemic, Varadkar had an approval rating of 75pc in an Ipsos MRBI poll.
He was widely lauded for his expertly choreographed response to Covid-19, with speeches that ranged from Seamus Heaney to Winston Churchill to Mean Girls.
Since then, it has all gone downhill for Varadkar and his party’s poll ratings. By July of this year, his Ipsos/MRBI approval rating had plummeted to just 36pc, and he trails his coalition partner Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald.
Under the coalition arrangement with Fianna Fáil and the Greens, he has had to play second fiddle to Martin, and one former government adviser says he is clearly uneasy in the role, sometimes coming across as unduly pushy and ungracious. The soothingly reassuring leader of the early pandemic period, who won over the public and achieved a measure of consensus, has morphed back into the more publicly abrasive figure — causing some critics to wonder if he may be a liability for Fine Gael.
Although his relations with Martin are said to be reasonably warm, he had public spats with health officials during the pandemic crisis, and in recent weeks described recommendations from the Commission on Welfare and Taxation as “straight out of the Sinn Féin manifesto”.
His pleading in interviews for Paschal Donohoe to be kept on as president of the Eurogroup of EU finance ministers has also led to public airing of disagreements that could have been kept behind closed doors.
Johnny Fallon, strategy director of Carr Communications, says there may be certain situations where the abrasive style works for Varadkar, but it depends on the context.
“Generally, politicians over time evolve, so that they have to have more than one string to their bow from a communications point of view,” says Fallon, a former member of the Fianna Fáil national executive.
“Sometimes politicians are accused of being chameleons, in that they change depending on who they are talking to. Leo has struggled a little bit to do that.
“He has brought a sense of ‘I am what I am — irrespective of what you think, this is how I am going to reply to the question and deal with these issues’. It doesn’t always go down well or suit the particular context.”
Of course, the Leo of 2022 is a lot more moderate than the young firebrand who entered the Dáil in 2007. It is easy to forget now that early on, he even proposed paying migrants to leave the country.
Varadkar also made the eccentric suggestion that some prisoners should have to pay their own board.
In his first week in the Dáil, he went straight for the jugular of taoiseach Bertie Ahern, likening him to Charles Haughey, and remarking: “The gutter is Bertie Ahern’s natural habitat.’’
Now, he saves his most vitriolic attacks for Sinn Féin, but critics have wondered whether these barbs have enhanced Fine Gael’s standing or merely elevated the rival party as a potential alternative government.
“He has probably taken the view that the future in Irish politics is going to be a two-party state between Sinn Féin and Fine Gael, and that Fine Gael can make that happen by making out that Sinn Féin is the bogeyman,” says Fallon.
“Sinn Féin are quite happy to make Fine Gael out to be the bogeyman on the other side, thereby carving out the political landscape, with Fianna Fáil lost in the middle. He has taken the view that he doesn’t really care if Fianna Fáil are lost in the middle, because it is not really his problem.”
But is there evidence that his approach, the thrust of his strategy before the election and since the pandemic caretaker interlude, is actually working?
When he took over the leadership of Fine Gael in 2017, supporters hoped that he would rejuvenate the party.
He had moderated his image and was the youthful, social media-savvy guy, a gay man with a cosmopolitan background who seemed to be the positive personification of a changing modern Ireland. The best asset of this concert-going, novelty-sock-wearing straight talker seemed to be that he did not seem like a run-of-the-mill politician.
But hopes that he would give his party a youthful shot in the arm were dashed with Fine Gael’s calamitous performance in the 2020 general election, its worst in percentage terms since 1948.
The RTÉ exit poll showed that Fine Gael support stood at just 15pc among 18- to 24-year-olds and 17pc among 25- to 34-year-olds.
By contrast, Sinn Féin achieved a vote of 32pc in both these age groups. The only consolation for Varadkar was that among younger voters, he was at least ahead of his rival party, Fianna Fáil.
Even in his own constituency, his performance was hardly stellar and he had to wait until the fifth count before he was elected behind Sinn Féin’s poll topper, Paul Donnelly.
But supporters who have watched his progress closely will take heart from the fact that he has had a topsy-turvy political career, with triumph following dismal failure.
At his first local election in 1999 as a political novice, he won just 380 votes, the third-worst Fine Gael performance in the country. At the following local election, he got the highest vote in the country.
Kevin Cunningham, lecturer in politics at Technological University Dublin, believes it would be wrong to write off Varadkar’s chances of electoral victory, and his occasionally abrasive style is not necessarily a barrier to success.
“While his popularity may not be as high as it once was, it is possible that it will rise again, because it has done so multiple times before,” says Cunningham, who is managing director of the polling organisation Ireland Thinks. “He has the capacity to increase his support.”
While this government is unique with its arrangement to rotate the job of taoiseach, Cunningham says Varadkar has suffered from taking the secondary role of tánaiste.
In the past, the less prominent partners in any coalition have tended to suffer in the polls — and Varadkar may be no different.
“If you support the government as a voter, you are more likely to support the central core. When he becomes taoiseach again, he is likely to recover lost ground.”
In the pandemic, when his popularity soared in the polls, his political renewal could be put down to a “rally-round-the-flag effect”.
According to Cunningham, when a country is facing an emergency, the leader often enjoys an increase in public support. Many political leaders across the world enjoyed a boost in popularity during the pandemic as voters set aside political differences.
Cunningham studied this effect and found that the Fine Gael surge in support was among the biggest of the countries he surveyed, including Germany, the UK, the United States, New Zealand, Italy and Sweden.
Before the 2020 election, Varadkar’s poll ratings fluctuated, and he had succeeded in boosting support for Fine Gael for a time.
“They were actually behind Fianna Fáil when Enda Kenny was leader,” he says. “When it was known there was a successful heave and they were heading into that leadership election, Fine Gael moved from being behind Fianna Fáil to being ahead of them.”
Varadkar’s popularity also surged during various points in the Brexit negotiations when he was seen to be taking a firm stance. “When he is doing statesman-like things, he seems to carry it off and people are proud of him on the international stage, but when he returned to domestic matters such as housing, he flopped,” Cunningham says.
His problems were crystallised at the start of the 2020 election campaign when Fine Gael held an event to boast about their Brexit achievements, but this was dominated by questions from the media about a homeless man who was injured when his tent was removed from the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin by an industrial vehicle.
Dr Theresa Reidy, lecturer in politics at University College Cork, says: “As taoiseach, Varadkar will be front and centre again. So, there is the potential for him to recover his popularity, but it will be nothing like during the pandemic.”
Under Varadkar, she says, Fine Gael underestimated the importance of housing and now it also has to tackle rampant inflation.
An Ireland Thinks poll for the Sunday Independent this month showed that the cost of living and housing were by far the most important issues among voters.
Most dangerous of all for Varadkar and Fine Gael, according to Reidy, is the popular narrative that Ireland is no longer a place where young people have opportunities.
Any justifiable protestations that unemployment levels are extremely low and that jobs are plentiful are dampened by young people’s difficulties finding accommodation.
Reidy says one of the problems for Fine Gael is that it lacks a clear identity. On the one hand, it seeks to put itself forward as a robust pro-business centre-right party of low taxes and law and order. On the other hand there have been grumbles from the backbenches that the party also tries to pander to the “woke, trendy left”.
In recent months, Varadkar has revived his pitch to Ireland’s “squeezed middle” with his advocacy of a new 30pc tax band, but to Reidy it seemed like a kite-flying exercise.
“There is a mismatch between what he says and what the party does,’’ she says. “On the one level, he talks a pro-business centre-right ideology — and that is a standard space for Fine Gael to be in — but in terms of policy, they are often quite scattergun in terms of impact.”
The man who was previously labelled “Tory boy” recently increased the minimum wage and improved sick pay benefits for workers.
He may talk about lower taxes and serving the people who get up early in the morning, but Reidy says the emphasis in Fine Gael governments has been on increasing public spending rather than tax cuts.
To the former Fine Gael TD Noel Rock, the fact that Varadkar has moderated many of his positions over the years is to his credit.
“As you get older, you see that the world is not as black and white as you thought in your twenties,” says Rock, who supported Varadkar in his leadership campaign. “There is no shame in moderating your position or changing your mind. That has happened a few times in his career.”
When he moves into the Taoiseach’s office and resumes his seat near the portrait of Michael Collins, Varadkar might have hoped to rejuvenate his ministerial line-up, but there is limited scope for promotion with only six cabinet posts available to the party.
“Generally speaking, he tends to stick with people he can trust,” says Rock. “The team around him tends to be people who have been with him from the start.”
There has been some speculation that he might drop Simon Coveney from the cabinet, but he would risk creating a focus for opposition to his leadership within the party.
Unlike Martin, Varadkar has time on his side and does not face a constant clamour from backbenchers to make his retirement plans clear.
A cloud over his leadership was lifted in July when the news came through that the Director of Public Prosecutions had decided that he would not face prosecution. This followed an investigation into the leak of a confidential government document to a friend in 2019.
If his party is kicked out of office at the next election, it is quite possible that Varadkar could sit it out in opposition in the hope of emulating Haughey and returning for a third term.
But opposition might not appeal to the Fine Gael leader and there has long been rumour and speculation that he might not be in for the long haul.
The pressures of the job are such that senior politicians including Eoghan Murphy, Brian Hayes and Brian Cowen have walked away at a relatively young age.
Back in 2015, Varadkar, now 43, said in an interview: “I don’t see myself in politics at 51, I definitely want to do something else. Whatever I do next, it will be different, not politics.”
But he later regretted indicating that he would retire early.
He told reporters in 2018: “I haven’t contemplated retirement from politics for a very long time and I can assure you I’ll be around for as long as the people want me.”