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Meanwhile, in the Dail, it's TDs in their 50s and 60s who have a stranglehold on Government and opposition. Taoiseach Brian Cowen, 50, a TD for 26 years, argues the toss with Enda Kenny, 59, who was first elected 35 years ago. When Enda has finished, Eamon Gilmore, 55, who first entered Leinster House in 1989, takes the Taoiseach to task.

The voice of a younger generation -- which has more to be annoyed about than those who are near pension age and mortgage free -- is missing from the Dail. That is why the decision of Leo Varadkar, 31, the Fine Gael enterprise spokesman, to stand up in the Dail and trash former Fine Gael taoiseach Garret FitzGerald was significant. Leo compared Brian Cowen's premiership to FitzGerald's, accusing the latter of tripling the national debt and destroying the country. Even Cowen looked surprised that some clubby Dail etiquette had been breached.

I spent two days with Leo to see if he could be the standard-bearer for the new generation, or just the regeneration of old-fashioned Fine Gael. The Dublin West TD has achieved a lot in his three years in the Dail. Elevated to the front bench from day one, he proceeded to make Mary Coughlan's life, as enterprise minister, hell. He has churned out impressive policy documents that matched the public mood on stuff like Fas and quangos. There have been eye-catching stunts, such as an attempt to offload his negative-equity apartment on Nama -- which was politely refused.

One thing you won't see old-fashioned Blueshirts signing up for, though, are sessions with a personal trainer called Rob. "I still use the same photos from three years ago and people say, 'You look totally different.' I actually had a personal trainer -- a good-value one, I hasten to add -- called Rob. I work out about three times a week or four times, watch the diet and stopped drinking for Lent."

As well as being slimmer than most TDs, Leo tells me frequently how different he is from the rest of the Leinster House lumpen. "I would be free-market centre right; I'd look around at other parties. I've no idea what you stand for. I think it would be nice to have more people in politics who actually stand for things. So many politicians are technocrats. Our system is designed so that you don't offend anyone," he says.

He's certainly a new type of TD in that he eschews clinics and funerals. "I don't do clinics. Most people would email me. I would get about 200 emails a day. I think they really tie you down. If there's something to be achieved by meeting people then I'll meet them. Sometimes people meet you with inappropriate stuff -- what they actually need is a lawyer.

"Lots of people don't understand what the role of a politician is. I don't think I'm qualified to give legal or financial advice. 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," he says.

He's unique in that he doesn't believe that he's all things to all voters. "I don't aspire to represent everyone. That's fine with me, because if you represent everyone you represent nothing. It's my objective to represent a particular viewpoint. I do much better in middle-class areas than working-class areas, but I get a good vote from working-class areas," he says.

It's very much in the tradition of old right-wing politicians such as Ronald Reagan who won over the 'Reagan Democrats' because of his free-market economic policies. "I get the vote because they would respect the work I do on the ground and would have a similar viewpoint to me. They don't think the solution to their problems is loads of welfare."

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Despite the Garret-bashing and the individualism, Leo hasn't totally jettisoned Fine Gael's past. The artwork adorning the walls of his Leinster House office is certainly true Blueshirt. There are several copies of the 1927 Cumann na nGaedhael election posters, and he notes approvingly that they didn't pull any punches back then.

Clearly he's a student of history, so I ask him does he have any heroes. "Someone like Bismarck would be someone I would have read a lot about and really admire as a strategic figure and also as a conservative who delivered a lot of social progress. Gladstone would be similar in that sense," says Leo.

Does he have any time for Fine Gael's historical figures? "I think Liam Cosgrave. Again, he's forgotten in history in a lot of ways. But during that very difficult period where the IRA were subverting the state, he held the line at a time when people in the other party were involved in back-channel activities. He saved democracy."

With idols such as Prussia's Iron Chancellor and sombre Fine Gaelers such as Cosgrave, it must be hard for him to get worked up about Enda. Surely his days as leader are numbered? "In a lot of ways he's underrated. Certainly there was a wobble around the day George Lee left, but at this stage he's more secure than at any time I've been in the party," says Leo.

Enda's understated leadership allows strong characters such as Leo to prosper. "His real strength is judgement and then sticking with it. He will take advice -- he's not a Duce. Then he decides on a matter, sticks to his decision and delegates its implementation. A very good CEO-chairman figure," he says.

He refuses to accept that Enda Kenny's 34-year membership of the Dail and flat delivery will be a massive voter turn-off at the next election: "I don't think it would matter if he's here six years or 34 years. I don't think it would be a good idea to have a taoiseach who's never served in government before," he says.

Enda's people-management skills were called into action when Leo lambasted Garret FitzGerald last month. "When I saw myself on the TV at nine o'clock, I sort of realised this was an own goal and this was going to be a bit of a problem."

Leo had to bite the bullet and go to Enda for help. "I started the conversation by saying, 'OK, some of what I said was true, but overall it was a mistake.' He was very decent about it. He's 35 years in the Dail; we've all been there."

Did Enda go through him for a shortcut? "I've never seen him carpet anyone. It's not his style. I said sorry to Enda for causing a problem."

Leo has since written a letter to Garret and is awaiting a reply. You get the sense he's not really sorry for what he said. "I wrote to him. I think he said on Newstalk he never met me. I've actually met him three times -- I've photographs to prove it," he says.

Leo has more to say on Garret the Good. "I am somebody who speaks their mind. Sometimes that annoys people, but I can live with that. He hasn't been a member of the party for 15 years. He describes himself as an independent commentator, and that's fine with me. What does bother me is that so many people, both in the media and in our own party, don't seem to realise that."

Leo is certainly ambitious, and the question about whether he'd like to be taoiseach is answered with the same alacrity as if he was being asked about taking milk in his tea. "I'd like to be a minister in the next government and then, if I'm any good at it, then I would. I suppose I would, but I know I'm not ready for it. I haven't been in government, haven't shown I can be a good minister."

Despite being smacked down on FitzGerald, he's still a guy in a hurry and wants the party to shape up -- maybe it needs Rob the personal trainer. "We need to sharpen our focus, definitely, on policy and communications," he admits.

He's pushing through two big reform papers that Fine Gael will have out soon on welfare reform and the public sector. He tells me the party will also have a new education policy, modelled closely on the Finnish system, focusing on quality of teaching and access.

Leo even tells me which cabinet job he has earmarked. It has to be a big-spending one, and he tells me he'd particularly like social welfare. "I'd love to do it. That would be my dream job. I'm sure people would shudder with horror at the thought of it, but I'd love to do that."

The reason for the shuddering could be his clear plan for reform of the benefits system. "What I like is flexi-security. It says to people that there are rights and responsibilities. For everyone that's in receipt of benefits, that's conditional on participating in education or training or taking up a job. That's the kind of system that I'd like to have.

"It's one that says you have the right to welfare but it's not a choice to stay on it -- after six months, if you don't accept a job or a placement, that you'd have your benefits reduced," he adds.

George Lee's presence in Fine Gael didn't threaten him either -- even the prospect that he'd have to move aside to give his illustrious ex-colleague his economic brief. "It was never discussed. Various times there was to be a reshuffle, but it didn't happen. I wouldn't have been averse to it, trying out something different. I've proven myself to being pretty good at an economic brief and doing a social brief."

He's even thinking ahead to coalition options after the general election. He dismisses Sinn Fein, admits FG can't rule out the Greens and reluctantly agrees Labour is the most likely coalition option.

"It's not what I want, but I think we can work it out. My biggest problem with Labour would be that, whereas Fine Gael has published detailed policies in a number of areas, Labour hasn't. What's their health policy? What's their policy on the public service? What's their policy on the budget? They've been very good at connecting with people emotionally, but there's been very little in terms of substantial policy work," says Leo.

Leo Varadkar is certainly no arriviste in Fine Gael, unlike George Lee. He joined the party when he was 16, after initially toying with the idea of joining the PDs. It really took off for him when he chaired the Trinity College Young Fine Gael branch. The young activist was co-opted onto Fingal County Council in 2004 and was easily elected to the Dail for Dublin West in 2007. He's from Castleknock, in the heart of his constituency, where his dad is a local GP.

The Dail frustrates him as it is currently set up. "The Dail has always been dysfunctional, always had this system whereby the Cabinet decides everything. The parliament is largely a rubber-stamp parliament. That's something we want to change."

Although he's served his time in Fine Gael, that didn't stop him rubbing several colleagues up the wrong way after he arrived in Leinster House. He says he hated every minute of his first year as a TD. "Politicians, even if they say they have thick skins, can be extremely sensitive; even though they're quite hard-nosed, they can be very childish.

"I would have pissed off a lot of people, and not deliberately. I would have said things about public-sector pay -- that it shouldn't have been increased. Mrs Kelly in Limerick, for instance, took offence to that and said it to her local TD who then would have been on to me about it asking, 'Why are you offending my constituents?' Then you felt you were kind of gagged," he tells me.

"You realise speaking your mind could be a load of hassle. The easiest way to get on is to say nothing that might offend anyone, ever. A lot of politicians do that. That's just not me," he said.

After that chastening experience, he looked to his heroes. "In terms of communication, Clinton and Blair were brilliant. I suppose I've learned the extent to which communication is so important in politics. When I first started off I was probably a bit too direct in things. You have to modify the tone sometimes," he admits.

This is where he thinks Brian Cowen is failing tragically as taoiseach, even though he has some admiration for him. "Cowen, I like him in some ways because he's very straight up, unlike Bertie who doesn't answer the question. But he doesn't make any effort to show people he's on their side, or try and convince them.

"I think there are two things. The first thing is that people do hold him partially responsible for the mess. And he is partially responsible for the mess. And that means that he has no credibility. And the second thing -- which is probably more important really, in some ways -- I don't think he really believes in communication. He doesn't get passionate about other people's problems," he says.

Leo denies that he deliberately tries to goad Cowen to get the headlines. "I wouldn't go in there every day trying to get a rise out of him, but it's so easy. He rises to it so easy. People heckling him would be looking to do that."

Even though he dishes out stinging criticism in the Dail, he finds some of the criticism of himself hard to take, particularly Mary Coughlan's allegations of sexism. "I thought it was very unfair. If anything I went easier on her because she was a woman. She's accused everyone of sexism! Nobody that I know would ever say that I'm sexist. Most people would accept it was the last line of defence for Mary Coughlan."

His abrasive bedside manner as a politician jars slightly with the fact he's a medical doctor. He still wants to qualify as a GP -- he has only 100 hours training left and does a session every couple of weeks. "I liked medicine. To be brutally honest, I ended up doing it as a career because it was sort of the family business. I really liked paediatrics. Kids are great because once they're sick, they're sick, when they're not, they're not. Very rewarding, and there's no sort of carry-on you'd have from adult patients."

He spent time in paediatrics in Crumlin and one incident from there haunts him.

"A child dying is very hard to deal with. The child had had an underlying condition but came in from home. We tried to resuscitate and it didn't work," he says.

"It was a seven-year-old boy. Happened probably over 45 minutes, and you then had to go back to your normal job. You had to go back and see the person with the sore throat."

He also experienced death while working in accident and emergency departments. "The other thing would have been in A&E. People with injuries -- traffic accidents and industrial accidents -- whose last words you would have heard. Very often they said that they were alright."

Despite his medical background, his views on some controversial medical issues are quite black and white -- such as abortion. "I would accept a lot of Catholic social teaching. I'm not a practising religious person, but I would accept that. I wouldn't be in favour of abortion. The only thing that would be a grey area is if there's a genuine threat or risk to the life of the mother."

What about the provision of abortion services for rape victims? "I wouldn't be in favour of it in that case, and, you know, first of all, it isn't the child's fault that they're the child of rape. You can say the same thing about disabled children. You know, some people would make that argument in favour of abortion. It's not their fault they're disabled. I wouldn't be in favour of it in those circumstances either.

"Even, how would that work practically? Would someone have to prove that they've been raped? I think where that's been brought in in countries it has more or less led to abortion on demand," he adds.

Is it not double standards to have more than 5,000 women a year travelling to the UK and elsewhere for abortions? "I don't think that's double standards. People travel overseas to do things overseas that aren't legal in Ireland all the time. You know, are we going to stop people going to Las Vegas? Are we going to stop people going to Amsterdam? There are things that are illegal in Ireland and we don't prevent people from travelling overseas to avail of them."

While many of Leo's views are conservative, his own background isn't conventional. His father is from Bombay and his mother is from Dungarvan. They met each other in the late Sixties when he was a doctor and she was nursing in Wexham Park Hospital in Slough, England -- Leo mentions that Carry on Doctor was filmed there. His parents spent time in England and also tried living in India before settling in Ireland in 1973.

His father is Hindu and had to get special permission to marry in the Catholic Church. "When they got married in the Seventies you had to get a dispensation from the Pope. They would have been under Ne Temere. He had to agree to bring up the children as Catholic, which they did," says Leo.

"They deliberately decided that if we were to be brought up in a western country that we would be brought up in the culture of our country. I think it's a sensible thing."

Leo claims his comfortable middle-class background shielded him from racism. "My dad was the local doctor and that insulated and protected us a lot. In Ireland in the Eighties there was very little racism because anyone that was Indian, or Chinese, or black was probably a doctor or a business person. The racism only really arrived with the asylum seekers in the late Nineties."

He keeps in touch with Indian relatives mainly on Facebook. He also spent one of his summer electives in a hospital in Bombay, and has tried learning the language of his forebears on several occasions.

Even when speaking of his personal life, Leo always brings it back to the political. Even his Indian connections are something he thinks we could exploit for the country. "There's huge potential investment there. We should be trying to position ourselves as the gateway to Europe for China and India. But there's no strategy."

If Fine Gael gets into power, he outlines their priorities for the first 100 days. "Jobs are at the centre of economic policy. The Government has the banks and the deficit at the centre of everything. It can't be like that. Twenty per cent of the adult population is on welfare now. And we need to retain jobs. They retained half a million jobs in Germany alone with a work-share agreement. Internships should be partially paid and we need to use the welfare money more cleverly," Leo says.

He's hopeful that we'll pull out of the recession. "Yes, I am optimistic, after this recession is gone through its course. We'll have a huge national debt, back to 100 per cent of GDP, about €150 billion, and unemployment of 15 per cent. House prices will be back to where they were in the mid Nineties. But that's it. We'll be going back to where we were in the mid-to-late Nineties in terms of standards of living. First of all, it wasn't that bad. Secondly, we've been there before. We can recover," he adds.

"Fiscal stimulus is going into paying welfare and existing systems, not putting the stimulus into rebuilding. We want to privatise some of the semi-states to make money; use the pension fund. We want to use that money to leverage private investment into broadband, water and energy."

He wants us to target the wealthiest economies. "There's a lot of money in the world. The sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi is €750bn. I was in Taiwan over New Years and they have the fourth biggest cash reserves in the world. There's a lot of money out there. It's about finding ways of getting that invested in here."

Before I go, I ask him his relationship status. He tells me he's been single for years, but isn't worried because Enda Kenny didn't get married until he was 40. Did he ever do bold things, grow his hair or upset his mammy? "Not really, I've always been about 30!" he says.

As I leave, he tells me he's off to Cuba for two weeks to recharge his batteries.

So this is him on low charge? Watch out, world!


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