Friday 18 January 2019

The secret of Leo's success stumps critics

The Opposition is struggling to come to terms with 'charismatic' Varadkar who could secure a coalition, writes Jody Corcoran

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher

There were two attacks on Leo Varadkar during the past week - one referring to his response to eviction-threatened homeowners as a "sick joke", the other describing as Thatcherite his 'welfare cheats cheat us all' campaign during the Fine Gael leadership contest.

The criticism by Ed Honohan, Master of the High Court, may have been heartfelt, but was subsequently reasoned and rebutted by the Abhaile service which provides vouchers for free financial and legal advice for people in mortgage arrears. The 'Thatcherite' attack in the Dail, by the Solidarity TD Paul Murphy, was political.

However, both criticisms speak to what will be one of the main planks of attack on Varadkar between now and during the next election: that he is a heartless right- winger primarily driven by the cold demands of classical liberalism.

Increasingly, I am of the view that such criticism is not strictly true, or at least that it is diluted with Paschal Donohoe and Simon Coveney at his either side.

That is not the point, however. Rather it is that ideological criticisms may turn out to be irrelevant in the election, and will certainly be pointless in the absence of a broader political 'narrative' (to use that word) from the Opposition.

As a footnote, it should also be remembered that Margaret Thatcher won three elections in a row, and throughout the broad thrust of her tenure had the buttressing support of a vast swathe of middle England, otherwise known as Mondeo Man, as represented by the self-employed electrician who once told Tony Blair that he was an ex-Labour voter who had bought his council house, owned his car, and wondered what Labour had to offer, given the party's history of raising taxes and mortgage rates.

From recent opinion polls it is becoming more evident that Leo Varadkar also has the growing support of a large proportion of middle Ireland, to the point that a question arises: can he actually win an overall majority in the next election?

The short answer is no, almost certainly not, but the longer answer is that his support level is now such that the era of 'confidence and supply' deal with Fianna Fail may turn out to be short-lived.

More than that, the prospect now also arises that Varadkar may well be able to put together a coalition without recourse to Sinn Fein, comprising of perhaps Labour, the Greens and Independents, or any combination thereof.

Before we get into what I believe to be the intangible reason of Varadkar's success so far, let us first turn to beloved statistics to examine the question of an overall majority and bolster the argument of a return to traditional coalition.

In our opinion poll last weekend, Fine Gael registered 36pc support, a remarkable but not unprecedented high. In the 2011 election Fine Gael also won 36pc of the vote, which translated into 76 seats, or three short of what would be now a majority.

In that Fianna Fail meltdown election, however, Fine Gael won a massive vote transfer which is unlikely to be repeated to the same extent, although Varadkar is far more transfer-friendly than was Enda Kenny at his end. Such is our electoral system, it is also worth noting that Bertie Ahern failed to win a majority even with 44pc of the vote - his highest share.

In any event, the point remains valid: our poll indicates that, on a good day, Fine Gael can win a substantial number of seats, possibly enough to put together a credible coalition with both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein in Opposition.

This is becoming evident to all of the main parties and others in the Dail, hence the rise in what I would call frustrated attacks on Leo Varadkar.

However, while these criticisms are not without validity, they lack an over-arching 'narrative'.

Yes, Varadkar is conservative, more right- wing than centrist. Yes, he is obsessed with 'spin' or what he would call good communication. Yes, parts of the health service are a mess, as they have been for decades. Yes, there is a housing crisis, but increasing numbers of houses are being built. Yes, there is an urban-rural divide (as increasingly there has been since subsistance farming ended in the 1980s), but the recently announced national development plan has taken reasonable account of that. Yes, he is too nationalist by half, but Brexit is also a big threat. And yes, there is a homeless problem, but that seems to have peaked somewhat and is, to use another buzzword, nuanced anyway - as nuanced as is the 'dole cheats' row and the current furore in relation to threatened evictions and so-called vulture funds.

I would suggest that middle Ireland is aware of these nuances and agrees when Varadkar tells Paul Murphy not to forget that people who engage in welfare fraud are not necessarily the poor and vulnerable but are people who pretend to be so and who take welfare intended for the genuinely poor and vulnerable.

Similarly, I would suggest that a large proportion of the silent majority wonder why it is that, at a time of almost full employment, thousands have not made a mortgage repayment in seven years or even made contact with their mortgage provider in that time.

This is not to give Leo Varadkar a free pass on all or any of the issues above, only to state that the Opposition is struggling to get to grips with him at a time when the economy is strong and when people are generally getting on with it, earning a reasonable living, looking after their families and trying to enjoy life after a difficult lost decade.

Neither does this alone explain the relative success of Varadkar, however.

To do that we need to look closer at his traits as a politician, which leads us to advisedly use the word "charisma". Rather, political charisma, or that aspect of a politician's ability to lead linked to his performance, which, so far, in the case of Leo Varadkar has been relatively good.

He has created a pattern of authority which seems to me to be rooted in his ability to communicate. As a result, he is developing a prestige, a relative concept admittedly, but which is in essence - another word used advisedly - a form of "celebrity". In short, people like to gossip about him and this a charismatic leader makes: think Charlie Haughey or Bertie Ahern.

In general, though, Leo Varadkar is perceived to reflect well on the country; or to put it another way, people like the cut of his jib.

These qualities are not to be underestimated, although underestimated they have been by his opponents.

But such political magic can be ephemeral. There is also, and will remain, respect for Micheal Martin, to whom a key 10pc of floating voters could still swap their support.

So the Taoiseach should be advised, that in harvesting the trust tentatively placed in him, that trust is based on a belief that his promises are valid and principally realisable.

Abuse that trust and the magic will be gone.

Sunday Independent

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