Saturday 24 August 2019

Liam Weeks: 'History will hardly remember Varadkar as political gladiator'

Poor results in the local and European elections can only add to the Taoiseach's uncertainty

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Picture: Damien Eagers
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Picture: Damien Eagers

Liam Weeks

In one of his final appearances on the silver screen, the late Richard Harris played the role of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in Ridley Scott's swords-and-sandals epic Gladiator.

Aurelius was the last of the 'Five Good Emperors' who presided over 'Pax Romana', a period of peace and prosperity in the early years of the Roman Empire.

He was also known for his philosophical acumen, and in a scene from Gladiator, Aurelius ponders his legacy with Maximus, his leading general, as played by Russell Crowe.

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"When a man sees his end," Aurelius says, "he wants to know there was some purpose to his life."

"How will the world speak my name in years to come?" he asks of Maximus. "Will I be known as the philosopher? The warrior? The tyrant?"

Two years into his own reign, Leo Varadkar may well be asking similar questions of the generals in his own entourage. Not specifically as to whether he has been a warrior or tyrant of course, but more broadly about how he will be remembered.

Twelve months ago, Varadkar may well have believed the hype that he was on the way to becoming Fine Gael's greatest-ever Taoiseach.

With rising support levels for his party and Government, and approval ratings beyond the reach of other party leaders, the future looked nothing less than rosy for Leo Varadkar.

His playing of the green card during the ongoing Brexit discussions attracted supporters who would never have voted Fine Gael in the past. Both his youth and victories in the marriage equality and abortion referendums won back some of the young voters who had long since deserted the civil war parties.

Varadkar also had the support of considerable sections of the media, who gave him a prolonged love-in, referring to the Taoiseach by first name, akin to the early years of Bertie Ahern's tenure.

With Paschal Donohoe at his side, Varadkar was leading a party with a self-declared record of fiscal rectitude, one that had guided the country out of recession and could seemingly be trusted not to lead us down another path of cyclical boom-bust economic policies.

What could go wrong? Something clearly has.

In January 2018, the Taoiseach's approval rating was 60pc, up 11 points from when he had taken over from Enda Kenny six months previously.

Fine Gael was on 36pc, a figure the party achieved at the 2011 election, when it fell just eight seats short of a majority. Perhaps more importantly for Fine Gael, the party was pulling away from Fianna Fail, 11 points in front, meaning anything other than a Fine Gael-led government after the next election was most unlikely.

But, in October 2018, Leo Varadkar's approval slipped to 51pc. In March 2019 it was down to 43pc, a figure that had precipitated Enda Kenny's ousting from office in 2017. This month it has fallen even lower, to 36pc, almost half of what it was less than 18 months ago.

Support for Fine Gael has likewise dipped, and there is now just the polling margin of error between it and Fianna Fail.

The consequence for Varadkar is that rather than surpassing Garret FitzGerald as Fine Gael's best Taoiseach (although Varadkar might proffer the title on someone else), he may become yet another in a long line of Fine Gael leaders incapable of leading his party to a general election victory.

Of the 11 men who have led Fine Gael since its foundation in 1933, only three have won an election - Liam Cosgrave in 1973, Garret FitzGerald in November 1982 and Enda Kenny in 2011.

The latter two also formed minority coalitions following elections that nobody won, but electoral defeat is the common destiny for most Fine Gael leaders.

Leo Varadkar does not want to be another John Bruton, who became Taoiseach midway during the lifetime of a Dail, and who lost the following election he should have won.

So, why has Varadkar moved closer to emulating Bruton's fate, rather than that of FitzGerald?

Primarily it is because the expectations over his tenure, which fuelled Varadkar's prolonged honeymoon, were entirely misplaced.

The image of a liberal, progressive nationalist that he cultivated, and which contributed to his early surge, was at odds with the Varadkar known to those who took an interest in his track record before he became Taoiseach.

But Varadkar was initially able to pull off the trick achieved by Charles Stewart Parnell in his early years at the helm of the Home Rule party in the 1880s. Those of you who had to study history when it was still compulsory for school-goers will recall that Parnell was known as the 'uncrowned king of Ireland' when at the zenith of his powers.

He achieved this feat by being all things to all men. When addressing the House of Commons in London, Parnell was a constitutional nationalist, pursuing a line of conciliation with the British government.

But when before the Land League and Fenians, he was preaching a fervent form of radical politics, urging resistance to British rule and landlordism.

It was this blend of ambiguity that was the key to Parnell's success, and something which Varadkar, perhaps unknowingly, has sought to replicate. To this day, historians are still unsure as to Parnell's personal political views, and the same could be said of Varadkar.

But where Parnell could get away with this in the 1880s, when social media did not track his every move and statement, the same is not possible now for the Taoiseach.

He can't be both the cool liberal vegan for the hipster generation and the conservative nationalist for rural Ireland.

In an attempt to keep the traditional Fine Gael voters in the agricultural hinterland onside, the Taoiseach has had to commit to an increasingly expensive national broadband plan, whatever the costs, it seems.

Likewise, Fine Gael's image of economic prudence had to be put to one side to appease the nurses on pay and to get the National Children's hospital built. The conservative backbench TD who in 2010 criticised Garret FitzGerald's policies that "effectively destroyed the country" has now had to embrace policies he would have slammed if still in Opposition.

The Taoiseach's cosying up to Europe over the backstop has also damaged accord with our nearest neighbour, at a time when a positive working relationship is needed more so than ever before.

The consequence of these Parnellite policies of trying to please all is now potentially having the opposite effect of angering most.

Control of the situation is slipping out of the Taoiseach's hands.

That is why in recent weeks there has been speculation of his reaching out to Labour and the Greens over a future coalition.

While previous taoisigh retained the potential to exploit matters somewhat with their power to call an election when to their advantage, Micheal Martin has cleverly deprived Varadkar of this prerogative.

Martin's commitment to supporting Fine Gael in Government for as long as the Brexit issue remains unresolved means that Varadkar cannot seek a dissolution of the Dail without Fianna Fail's backing.

The results of the forthcoming local and European elections can only add to the uncertainty. I wrote a few weeks ago that Leo Varadkar is perhaps the only party leader immune to electoral aftershocks, but that would be of little consolation to him.

The Taoiseach, like any statesman, has his eyes on a greater prize - his legacy.

Both Marcus Aurelius and Parnell have statues in their honour in Rome and Dublin, respectively. How will Leo Varadkar be remembered?

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at UCC

Sunday Independent

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