Wednesday 18 September 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Project Leo might be in need of a reboot'

Our young, with-it Taoiseach is great on the big-hits but needs to work on the dry detail, writes Brendan O'Connor

Cartoon by Tom Halliday
Cartoon by Tom Halliday

Fine Gael will be relieved and even delighted if it does as well as it seems it might in these European elections.

The potential triumph of Frances Fitzgerald not only heals the wound of her forced sacking but it is one in the eye for Fianna Fail, who demanded her head, somewhat prematurely as it would subsequently emerge. Maria Walsh, a political novice and a risk at this level of politics, looks poised to do well also, securing the image Fine Gael has sought to portray as the modern party of diverse, rainbow Ireland.

Leo Varadkar will be more relieved than anyone. Fine Gael and its image are very much built around Varadkar now, for better or worse. The upside of this is that Varadkar's brand of young, with-it and straight-talking offers the party a relevance and an authenticity that other parties could only dream of.

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The downside of Varadkar personifying the party is that as his personal brand suffers, so does the party's brand, and it is inevitable that when you are Taoiseach and in the firing line, the gloss comes off you somewhat. So we have seen satisfaction with the Government, support for Fine Gael and satisfaction with Leo personally fall together in recent opinion polls. This is perhaps inevitable with a politician like Varadkar, whose image had always been that of a politician who wasn't really a politician. When you're Taoiseach, it's hard to convince people you're not really a politician.

So where is Project Leo at as we go into these polls? While the Euro polls - and an actual election is the only poll that counts, as politicians are always telling us - could suggest it's in good nick, the mood on the domestic front might suggest differently. On the optics of things - and optics are hugely important to this government and in fairness, to modern politics in general - you could argue that it is in disarray, that people have stopped believing this government or trusting it.

To assess Project Leo, we need to know first what it is. Sometimes, on a basic level, it can seem as if Project Leo was, first and foremost, about Leo becoming Taoiseach. He achieved this goal with ruthless efficiency. There was none of the unpredictability and messiness of a general election. Leo became Taoiseach largely thanks to a relatively controllable constituency of Fine Gael parliamentary party members, who were worked over and brought onside by a crack team including Eoghan Murphy and others.

The question for many is what the next step was. It sometimes seemed as if there was no real next step. Some, even those close to him, will say that for Varadkar, the project was to become Taoiseach, and that after that there was no big idea in Project Leo. If there was a big idea, it could perhaps be best summed up in the nebulous phrase, 'to modernise the country'. Varadkar and his choirboys were very modern men and women. Varadkar's very ascension to the office of Taoiseach was a symbol of modernisation.

Enda Kenny was very much emblematic of his generation, the father of the Dail, and a politician in the traditional Irish mode, though very much underestimated in many ways. Kenny was seen by some as an accidental Taoiseach, who inherited his father's seat and then hung around the Dail, often making no huge impression, until he became Taoiseach, almost by default.

Varadkar did not inherit his father's seat and was not the type for bucklepping around the country, high-fiving strangers. He famously thought it was a bit weird to go to the funerals of strangers, a signifier, in a small way, of his rejection of how politics was traditionally done. So his ascension was a triumph for a new, more trendy yes, but perhaps more corporate style of politics.

On modernising, even his detractors would have to admit that Varadkar has had success on big, landmark steps forward. That's as long as you see gay marriage and legalising abortion as steps forward. Varadkar infamously did not always see gay marriage as a step forward himself, but that's really only a problem if you demand that your politicians never learn and grow and change their views, which is a rigidity favoured by old-style politicians. While much of the work on these two issues was done by very effective grassroots campaigners in civil society, and indeed by Enda's much scoffed-at constitutional convention, there's no doubt that Varadkar was the perfect politician to set the right tone for these changes.

Every time the country went near abortion in the past, we had torn ourselves apart, and whether or not you agree with legal abortion, you have to admit it was somewhat of a miracle that we finally legislated for it and largely woke up the next morning and got on with things without too much bitterness.

Setting a tone is an important thing in leadership and Varadkar has definitely set a more modern tone in the country. Even seeming faux pas like the LCD Soundsystem incident and the Kylie Minogue letter, while they are cringey, at least suggest a man who lives in the same country, who breathes the same air, who has the same cultural hinterland as most normal people under 50. To young, forward-looking Ireland, Varadkar, in ways at least, seems like someone like them, rather than feeling, as Kenny did, like someone like their father.

So when historians look back after the dust has cleared and the day-to-day issues have faded into insignificance, the big picture of Project Leo could seem hugely successful. And he's good at the big moments. He was pitch perfect when he gently confronted the Pope in Ireland, managing to articulate and reflect, with suitable respect, the general ambivalence about the visit and the Catholic church's history with this country.

Though again, Kenny had done the same in another way previously, and for him, standing up to the Church was arguably a much riskier and braver move.

However, while Varadkar may excel at the big moments, the big projects could be his undoing. Right now, the tone and feel around the government is that of an under-fire management team which resorts too often to corporate waffle and double-speak, and which only tells the truth, about things like the level of investment required by Granahan McCourt in the new broadband plan, when backed into a corner. The figure came only after days of refusal to confirm it and a rogue minister on Clare FM revealing it.

If the broadband debacle was a one-off or a blip, you could perhaps excuse it. But this tone of messiness, defensiveness, changing the story, being elusive, and looking shifty, has permeated the National Children's Hospital project and areas such as housing and health. Eoghan Murphy seems to try to tell us that black is white around housing with increasing regularity, and the National Children's Hospital project, already apparently going up by another trifling €50m since we last spoke about it, could continue to leech credibility from Leo and his government for quite some time yet.

There may well be a tone of modernity around Leo and his guys in navy suits. But there is increasingly too a tone of tetchiness, defensiveness and waffle around them.

There can be a sense that they just say whatever they need to say to get past any tricky moment, that they are exasperated with having to deal with this constant questioning by the media and the public, that they are sometimes bored and irritated by the day-to-day grind of governing and being responsible for mundane things like morgues in Waterford, or moaning farmers.

These things may seem very 'old politics' for Leo and his gang. But they need to realise that while you can enjoy big-picture triumphs, the vast bulk of politics is made up of dull administration. Most of the job is decidedly not glamorous, exciting or particularly gratifying, and neither do most things make you universally popular.

Project Leo feels right now like it needs a reboot. It may have got this far on novelty and a few big wins for what it views as modern Ireland. But politics is still about buttering parsnips for most of the people, most of the time, and as Brexit recedes or is resolved in some shape or form and we all have to deal with that fallout, and as other concerns come more to the fore again, Project Leo's next phase needs to show it has the maturity for the daily grind of dull competence.

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