Saturday 21 September 2019

John Downing: 'Boris vs Leo: Two leaders couldn't be more different as black tragedy plays out'


Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson don’t have much in common – let alone their Brexit policies
Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson don’t have much in common – let alone their Brexit policies
John Downing

John Downing

It's an appropriate time to do a head-to-head comparison between the two "posh boys" - Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson - as they continue to be key players in the black tragedy that is Brexit.

September beckons, bringing the most torrid month in British politics since World War II, with huge Irish knock-on effects.

Yesterday's move by Boris Johnson to close the UK parliament for five weeks further sharpens a gut struggle between his government and MPs of all parties - including pro-EU people in his own Conservative Party.

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But anti-no-deal MPs face a very uphill battle to avoid a calamitous outcome. Mr Johnson continually insists, do or die, that he wants Brexit by Halloween - deal or no deal.

Five weeks after Boris Johnson's election on July 24, we now expect a long-delayed meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to happen soon.

So, let's ask just how do Leo and Boris match up - if at all?

1. Background and experience: Boris Johnson is the older, at 55 to Leo Varadkar's 40. But they are roughly even on political experience.

Leo Varadkar has been longer in government, at eight full years, and two years as Taoiseach. Boris Johnson has just weeks as prime minister under his belt and served less than two inglorious years as an accident-prone UK foreign minister.

But Boris Johnson was longer in parliament, starting as an MP in 2001, and he also served two terms as mayor of London with a big budget and huge powers. During those eight years, he managed to put his name on the successful London Olympics of 2012.

Their family backgrounds appear very different at first glance. Leo Varadkar is the son of an immigrant and something of a loner. Boris Johnson presents as quintessentially English and appears more clubbable.

But delving back a little further, we find that Johnson has Turkish and French grandparents.

Both are also products of an elite education system, though some will argue that Varadkar's King's Hospital and Trinity College Dublin are far less posh by some distance than Johnson's Eton and Oxford.

2. Performance and Integrity: Boris Johnson is by far the more charismatic of the pair. Even before politics - when I knew him as a journalist reporting from Brussels in the early 1990s - he was widely known across the member state EU delegations for his distinctive first name and his cultivated bumbling young-­English-fogey image.

By contrast, Leo Varadkar can be wooden and forced.

He often lacks spontaneity, either socially or when it comes to delivering the big speeches. But, to some degree, these are skills which can be honed.

Politics does share some of the attributes of showbiz, including the ability to hold and sway a crowd. But political leadership involves more than crowd-pleasing and showbiz tricks.

But we must acknowledge Varadkar has for now at least a claim on having far more integrity.

This is not to say the Fine Gael leader is a kind of plaster political saint. He very definitely is no latter-day Pádraig Pearse visionary.

Here, we need to periodically simply remind ourselves that Brexit - which Boris Johnson quite cynically chose against his own family background, experience and instincts - was the vehicle which took him to Downing Street.

And he now sees it as the means of staying there with a more secure tenancy after a general election likely to follow before this year ends.

All political leaders have big egos - without ego they would be doing something else. But this one is all about Boris Johnson and his political ambitions in a way that makes Leo Varadkar seem rather monkish.

The rest is a noisy blame game. Mr Johnson will further pump up the volume on his existing cries that he was ready to deal - but the rest of the European Union's leaders would not engage. Leo Varadkar will keep all that uppermost in his mind when the pair do meet early next month.

3. How they rank on the EU stage: With just two years of leaders' summit experience, the Taoiseach is a relative newcomer when compared to the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But at a series of EU leaders' talks since taking office in June 2017, Leo Varadkar has impressed with his grasp of the details. The prominence of Brexit on the news agenda has put the spotlight much more on the Irish representatives.

This is evidenced by the much larger press briefing room allotted to the Irish delegation in Brussels. As with all politics, you get nothing for nothing in EU negotiations, and it is clear that Ireland's needs largely coincide with European leaders' take on Brexit. But the personal is often unduly overlooked, and Varadkar's approach and attitude have helped.

By contrast, Boris Johnson has a negative reputation, with reports of off-side remarks about "foreigners" preceding him into the top UK job.

The EU leaders were prepared to accept a new approach tempered by realism. But the UK prime minister is trading on brinkmanship and the heft of the EU's second-largest economy.

So calamity appears just 63 days away.

Irish Independent

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