Thursday 15 November 2018

Why Leo, the petulant political puppy, is still happily wagging his tail

Kim Bielenberg profiles the FG minister who this week broke ranks over a second bailout

Leo
Varadkar shares a joke with Richard
Bruton
Leo Varadkar shares a joke with Richard Bruton

Deep down, Enda Kenny must have a soft spot for the youngest member of his Cabinet, the ever troublesome Leo Varadkar. The Taoiseach has pushed him up the ladder relentlessly. He has championed the cause of the plain-speaking doctor from Castleknock.

He promoted him to his party frontbench in his first week in the Dáil four years ago.

Backbenchers were said to be envious of the precocious star with his personal trainer, preppy private school manner and tendency to veer between behaving like the party's semi-housetrained polecat, and an errant, but somewhat loveable, puppy.

In return for the baubles of a senior position, the young lieutenant has not always repaid his leader with gratitude, loyalty or discretion. In fact, as he showed this week, he can be a downright nuisance.

Only a year ago young Leo was at the centre of a plot to oust Kenny as leader of Fine Gael, and replace him with Richard Bruton.

Varadkar has not been afraid to attack his party's sacred cows, most notably with his criticism of the revered former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald for his economic record and "his boring articles in The Irish Times''. It was sacrilege.

The failed leadership heave alone might have been enough to bury Varadkar's political ambitions for the best part of a decade.

Leo himself is said to have cried on the day when the plot against the leader failed. His hopes of high office were dimming, but Enda stood by him and gave him an important ministry at the tender age of 32.

This week the patience of the apparently unflappable Taoiseach was tested again. Leo and his loose lip threatened to send financial markets into a tailspin when he suggested that Ireland might need another bailout.

Privately, ministers were aghast that the one-time scourge of Fianna Fáil was now causing trouble for his own government.

With Ireland's credit-worthiness questioned from within, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was able to accuse ministers of still operating to the standard set in Opposition, where all that mattered was the size of the headline.

The Taoiseach is not known for giving his underlings sharp raps on the knuckles. This week, he was moved to warn them that loose talk could sink the ship of state.

But when the hubbub has died down he is likely to stick by his troublesome minister in the hope that he learns greater discretion.

So what are the secrets of his success? Cabinet ministers may have wrung their hands at his gaffe, but there is also a deep admiration for him, particularly among younger members of his party.

Neale Richmond, a Fine Gael councillor who worked alongside Varadkar in the youth wing of the party, said: "I would say that he is the most intelligent politician I have ever met.''

His cosmopolitan background, his candour and his willingness to dispense with some of the dreary conventions of Irish political life make him popular.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Varadkar does not do funerals. He says it would be strange to go along to funerals of people you don't know. Defying political orthodoxy, he also refuses to do constituency clinics.

He is one of the first senior ministers of the Facebook generation. When he has time to relax in his bachelor pad in Blanchardstown he likes devouring history books and watching cartoons like South Park and Family Guy. His favourite comfort foods are Murray Mints and Chuppa Chups.

One journalist who travelled as a passenger in his sporty Golf during the recent election campaign noted the car's contents: a Kit Kat, a bag of dirty laundry, a can of Red Bull and The Little Book of Buddhism by the Dalai Lama.

Although he does not come from a political family -- his father Ashok is a respected Indian doctor in Castleknock; his mother Miriam is a nurse from Dungarvan -- Varadkar joined the party when he was just 16.

His father is Hindu and his mother Catholic. When they got married in church they had to get special permission and agree to bring up the children as Catholic. Varadkar once said: "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."

The Irish person he most admires is Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary, who shares his fondness for shooting from the lip.

Intriguingly, another hero is Count Otto Von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Germany. He sees him as a conservative who delivered social progress.

And, unsurprisingly, the person he least admires is Bertie Ahern, whom he blames for our current economic woes. Already, as a teenager, young Leo was firing off letters to national newspapers, lacerating Fianna Fáil with a certain pomposity.

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''.

He has learnt to curb this tendency to look down his nose, but there is no better man to eviscerate opponents. 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.''

He repeatedly goaded Mary Coughlan in the Dáil , suggesting that she was an embarrassment, who was unsuitable to represent the country overseas.

Some of his former classmates at the fee-paying King's Hospital in west Dublin are amused by his recent persona as a gym bunny who plays second row on the Oireachtas rugby team and now includes sport in his ministerial brief.

"I would not have remembered him as a sporting type at all,'' said one former King's Hospital pupil. "He was very much one of the nerds. 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.''

Varadkar now works out three or four times a week in the gym, and boasts that his waist size has dropped from 40 inches to 35 since he entered the Dail.

He may have had a privileged upbringing, but he has a canny knack of identifying with his now-beleaguered young middle-class voters.

He boasted that he was in negative equity himself after he bought his flat for €350,000, and it plunged in value to €250,000. In one of his most impish political stunts, he offered to sell the apartment to NAMA for €420,000 two years ago. It politely declined.

On his ministerial salary he should have little difficulty paying his mortgage now, but he recently complained that his job as a minister had destroyed his social life.

"It's totally dead; it's awful, actually,'' said the single man. "It's actually very hard to go out because I'm just too feckin' well-known.

"Pubs, nightclubs are desperate, especially people with a bit of drink on them. They want to talk to you and introduce you to their friends. Ah, it's just a nightmare, a feckin' nightmare. I've to leave the country to get peace."

He may have been Garret FitzGerald's most famous critic in Fine Gael, but he shares with the late lamented Taoiseach a certain nerdish streak.

When he went on holidays to Italy last year he got his secretary to post out old research papers from bodies such as the ESRI. And then he spent two hours reading them by the pool each day.

It is this determination to master his brief, coupled with an ability to rile political opponents, that endears him to Enda Kenny.

Leo may be a loose cannon at times, but he has given his party a youthful energy.

If he can curb his tongue long enough to implement some of the ideas that are spinning around in his head, he will have a bright future and this week's gaffe will only have been a momentary setback in a glittering career.

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