Tuesday 21 January 2020

What kind of leader can we expect? Inside the mind of Leo Varadkar

What kind of statesman can we expect from the brilliant campaigner dubbed 'Tory Boy' in his ­early days in politics? Kim Bielenberg on the ­Dublin politician who has built a career on standing out from the herd

The new statesman: Leo Varadkar at Wicklow Gaol last week. Photo: Pic: Justin Farrelly
The new statesman: Leo Varadkar at Wicklow Gaol last week. Photo: Pic: Justin Farrelly
Leo Varadkar with friend Lucinda Creighton while members of Young Fine Gael. Photo: Tom Burke
Leo Varadkar at the Dublin Gay pride Parade in 2015, the year he came out.
Leo Varadkar putting up election posters in Clonsilla in 1999
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In a few days' time an onerous responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Leo Varadkar, as he fulfils his ambition to be elected Taoiseach in the Dáil.

Leo the brilliant political campaigner will have to give way to Leo the statesman, a leader with the task of putting ideas into practice and keeping a government together.

His campaign to elevate himself to the top job has lasted as long as six years - and has been a stunning success.

Leo is a box-office draw who has attracted headlines across the world since it emerged that the gay son of an Indian immigrant was likely to be chosen as leader of a country that is now described as "once-staunchly Catholic".

Leo Varadkar with friend Lucinda Creighton while members of Young Fine Gael. Photo: Tom Burke
Leo Varadkar with friend Lucinda Creighton while members of Young Fine Gael. Photo: Tom Burke

Across the global news wires, the young political star was inevitably compared to other charismatic young political leaders - Emmanuel Macron in France and Justin Trudeau in Canada.

Most political observers would place him to the right of those two leaders, but the nuances of Leo's philosophy were forgotten.

The reports in the overseas press noted that he will be only the fourth head of government in the world who has come out as gay. The only serving gay prime minister at the moment is Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg.

One former minister who has worked closely with him in government tells Review: "He's good looking and fit, and he comes across as being affable, and he knows how to get noticed.

"That's great if you want to be a movie star, but if you want to be leader of a country you also require other skills, and I am not sure yet if he has them."

Early ambition

Leo Varadkar at the Dublin Gay pride Parade in 2015, the year he came out.
Leo Varadkar at the Dublin Gay pride Parade in 2015, the year he came out.

It is hard to be precise about when the fervent desire to be Taoiseach emerged in Leo Varadkar, but he certainly showed signs of political ambition as a child.

He once embarrassed his mother at the age of nine when he told her friends he would be Health Minister.

Although Leo joined Fine Gael as a 17-year-old at the private west Dublin school King's Hospital, one of his classmates says he expected him to be a doctor rather than a politician. His Indian father Ashok is a retired doctor, and his mother Miriam, a nurse from Waterford.

"He was very much one of the nerds," says the classmate. "He took a bit of abuse when he was at school.

"He always seemed very bright and he let us know it. I remember he could give cheeky answers to the teachers.''

Already, as a teenager, young Leo was firing off letters to national newspapers, lacerating Fianna Fáil with a certain pomposity.

Leo Varadkar putting up election posters in Clonsilla in 1999
Leo Varadkar putting up election posters in Clonsilla in 1999

Some of his early public utterances showed a snobbish streak, as he referred to the leadership of Fianna Fáil as "accounting technicians from Drumcondra and small-town solicitors from Offaly''.

When he first entered the Dáil he had the reputation as a right-wing firebrand, capable of eviscerating opponents.

It is hard to envisage now but in 2008, Varadkar proposed paying migrants to leave the country. There were rowdy Dáil exchanges when Fianna Fáil's Conor Lenihan appeared to throw up a Nazi salute at Leo, but then insisted it was a "half-wave".

Leo also made the oddball suggestion that some prisoners should have to pay their own board and lodging for their incarceration.

There were a few raised eyebrows, even on the Fine Gael benches, when he went for Bertie Ahern's jugular in his first week in the Dáil. After likening him to Charles Haughey, he said: "The gutter is Bertie Ahern's natural habitat.''

Councillor Scrubs

As soon the formality of counting votes in the Dáil is over, the new Taoiseach's life will change dramatically, and the pressures will become intense.

Wherever he goes - from his office in Government Buildings, to meetings, to his apartment on the Northside of Dublin - he will be trailed discreetly by armed officers from Garda Síochána's Special Detective Unit.

If he follows the routine of Enda Kenny, Varadkar will be up by 6am, and may be sitting at his desk past midnight on some nights, with his diary managed from minute to minute.

Varadkar is used to long hours, having worked as a trainee doctor for 60 hours a week at the same time as he was building a political career. In his early days as a local politician, he was nicknamed 'Councillor Scrubs' by a political rival for turning up to a council meeting dressed in the garb of a hospital medic.

From the moment Leo arrives in Government Buildings, the in-tray will be piled high with briefings from top civil servants, led by Martin Fraser, secretary-general of his department.

He will immediately have to take up the baton in Ireland's Brexit negotiations - a puzzle that would confound the most lucid diplomatic brain. The room for manoeuvre is narrow in the next budget, and Donald Trump's attempts to lure US multi-nationals back home have created more uncertainty.

But most of all, he will have to keep a potentially fractious government in one piece, and this is where the doubts arise.

The choirboys

In the most memorable utterance of the leadership campaign, the Dublin Bay South TD Kate O'Connell lambasted Varadkar's supporters as "choreographed, co-ordinated choirboys… Singing for their supper".

As one former cabinet colleague of Varadkar's puts it, "Leo will have his hands full now, because the choirboys will want to become choirmasters. They will be looking for promotion."

His chief consigliere Eoghan Murphy is bound to get a job in the cabinet, but Leo can only reward a few of the compliant backbenchers who trooped obligingly onto the plinth to support him in the hope of preferment. Those who have worked with him say his approach to government is likely to be the polar opposite to Enda's.

One former cabinet minister says: "You have to wonder how good Leo will be at managing the cabinet, because it is not going to be easy with Shane Ross and the Independents running off in different directions.

"Enda was a very good chairman in the cabinet. He was good at putting his arm around ministers, and persuading them to come around to his point of view."

The former cabinet minister says: "I don't know if Leo has that quality. We have not seen him in the role of chairman at all.

"If Fine Gael is doing well in the polls, he'll probably go for an election in the autumn."

'Aloof and stand-offish'

When he was Minister for Transport and Sport, Varadkar initially had a stormy relationship with his Minister of State Michael Ring.

But as time went on the relationship improved and Ring has been among his most prominent supporters in recent days.

Some others who worked with him closely in government have found him distant, aloof and stand-offish.

His longtime friend Fine Gael Senator Neale Richmond says: "He is naturally a very shy person. He needs to get to know you before he is comfortable in your company.

"The whole persona of a glad-handing, chatty politician does not sit easily with him, but once he gets to know you he is great craic."

Richmond says Enda was great at working a room of 500 people, but Leo is a much better media performer.

The efficiency of Varadkar's "blitzkrieg" campaign for the leadership stunned the rival camp, and they had barely got their boots on before they smelled defeat.

With special Leo posters in pastel shades held up at rallies and pre-packaged policy documents, party insiders believe it was the slickest leadership campaign ever mounted in Ireland - and had many of the corny trappings of a US presidential primary.

Campaign For Leo

Whereas leaders used to emerge on the basis of nudges and winks in smoke-filled rooms around Leinster House, Leo mounted his campaign from offices that have been rented for months close to Fine Gael headquarters.

The website campaignforleo.ie was registered last year, and a full social media campaign was ready to roll. A Leo campaign logo designed to fit around Facebook profile pictures was sent around to party supporters.

Varadkar will be the first Taoiseach who is comfortable with social media. Enda Kenny went through the motions on a Twitter account managed by his handlers, but Leo tweets himself with a more personal touch.

He has also used an older style of campaigning. He took a leaf out of the book of Charles Haughey, who went on the "rubber chicken circuit" to meet with party members before becoming leader in 1979. According to one party insider, Leo has been carefully cultivating the grassroots across the country for six years. Visiting local areas as a minister, he would often make a point of arranging meetings with county councillors.

He would also make himself available as a guest speaker at constituency functions, and held regular clinics for TDs, senators and councillors in his ministerial office. There were also reports of him 'love-bombing TDs' with pizza, beer and trips to the races.

As a medical student at Trinity College he became friends with Lucinda Creighton, another upcoming figure from Young Fine Gael.

Although Lucinda parted company with the party over abortion, she remains good friends with Leo. Early on, he too opposed abortion, but his view seems to have changed.

Lucinda was among the guests at the joint birthday party he held with his partner Dr Matt Barrett at the Hacienda Club in Dublin earlier this year.

Varadkar has indicated that his partner, who works at the Mater Hospital, will not attend State occasions with him.

A softer tone

Now that he is set to be Taoiseach, observers will be keen to find out what version of Leo emerges as he heads the government.

Varadkar moderated his tone markedly once he had got his feet under the cabinet table in 2011, and his contributions to cabinet meetings have been mostly restrained, according to colleagues.

In Social Protection, he has been criticised for his campaign against social welfare fraud. But unlike the Conservatives in Britain, the politician dubbed "Tory Boy" in his younger days has not moved to cut social welfare.

His period in health has raised questions about how effective he is at putting ideas into action.

In his leadership manifesto, he took credit for introducing free GP care for the under sixes and over 70s. But these policies were set in train by his predecessor James Reilly.

According to his critics, the most noteworthy event during his tenure was the decision to shelve his party's flagship plan to introduce universal health insurance.

During his leadership campaign, there was a return to the right-wing rhetoric, as he made a pitch for those who get up early in the morning.

And his move to ban strikes in certain essential sectors invited comparisons with Mrs Thatcher.

But those who have followed his fortunes closely wonder how much of this was posturing, designed to appeal to a Fine Gael electorate, and how much was a genuine declaration of intent?

One former colleague in government says: "I wonder how much of that is just wanting to stand out from the herd. He's very good at that."

He has softened his tone on many issues, and his image underwent a transformation when he came out as gay in January 2015 and campaigned for marriage equality.

Earlier in his career he had opposed gay adoption in most circumstances. He also takes a more liberal stance on abortion than he did as an opposition politician.

Few have doubted his political ability ever since he scored the highest vote in the country in the local elections of 2004.

But now that the turquoise Leo posters are being packed away and the choirboys have gone home, the real test comes. His supporters will be hoping that he can turn his slick campaigning zeal and well-honed rhetoric into genuine achievement.

As one seasoned political operator puts it: "He certainly won't be able to drop too many balls, because there is a ready replacement waiting in the wings."


The gospel ­according to Leo

On religion

“I’m not a religious person. I might go to Mass, maybe at Christmas, but I’m not a confessional person. I don’t necessarily believe it all.”

On being gay (2015)

“It’s not something that defines me. I’m not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician, or a gay politician for that matter. It’s just part of who I am, it doesn’t define me, it is part of my character I suppose…”

On Bertie Ahern (2007)

“The gutter is Bertie Ahern’s natural habitat.’’

On Sinn Féin (2017)

“I’m not putting out an olive branch to Sinn Féin. I think Sinn Féin remains the greatest threat to our democracy and our prosperity as a State.”

On his blog while travelling in Asia (2009)

“I really can’t wait to get the keys to one of those government jets. My bowels aren’t feeling the Mae West today. Not sure whether to blame the Mongolian food or Aeroflot.”

On politicians going to funerals

“I don’t go to funerals. In Dublin, if you turned up at funerals of people you didn’t know, people would find it strange.”

To Taoiseach Brian Cowen in 2010

“You’re no Seán Lemass, you’re no Jack Lynch and you’re no John Bruton. You’re a Garret FitzGerald. You’ve trebled the national debt, you’ve effectively destroyed the country… And it’s the last thing you do, so enjoy writing your boring articles in the Irish Times in a few years.”

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