Sunday 22 September 2019

Varadkar's redefining of Fine Gael is not as radical as first appears

The Taoiseach is trying to marry his new style of 'pop leadership' with old-school politics, writes Kevin Doyle

ASPIRATIONAL: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivers his first conference speech as party leader at Fine Gael’s National Conference. Photo: Fergal Phillips
ASPIRATIONAL: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar delivers his first conference speech as party leader at Fine Gael’s National Conference. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Life coaches will tell you to aim high in case you fall short. The theory is simple: you might not reach the stars but you'll definitely stretch yourself trying.

But it doesn't necessarily work in the political sphere. Aiming high in this world sounds good but will, in all likelihood, result in over-promising.

Yet it seems one of Leo Varadkar's many advisers has told him to apply the mantra and it is a dangerous game for the young Taoiseach. It will prove either brave or stupid - but we won't know which until after the next election.

Varadkar wants to be a Taoiseach who stood for something. He said as much during the Fine Gael leadership contest when he accused Simon Coveney of trying to stand for everything and therefore standing for nothing.

Fine Gael is almost seven years in Government and while the next election now seems further away than at any point since February last year, there was a mood among delegates at its national conference that it's time for a reboot.

"We have lifted ourselves off the canvas, dusted ourselves down, and the Fine Gael fighting spirit is back," said Culture Minister Heather Humphreys.

That's a strange statement from the party in power. Surely they should be the confident ones, not the ones feeling battered and bruised.

"We are not looking for an election but when it comes we are ready," she added.

As part of that election preparation, Varadkar has commissioned a 'rolling manifesto' - except party members have been told not to call it a manifesto. That would be too blatant so instead they've produced a "rolling political programme" called: 'Building a Republic of Opportunity - The First Iteration'.

How very Fine Gael. You'd never hear words like 'iteration' used at a Fianna Fail Ard Fheis.

The 48-page document has chapters covering everything from "protecting the planet" to "a sporting nation" and being "an island at the centre of the world".

The first three pages are a cut and paste of Varadkar's speech to this weekend's national conference. It reads better than he delivered, setting out his vision for the party.

It's not that the Taoiseach is trying to redefine Fine Gael. In fact he's trying to bring it back to what he sees as the Blueshirts' roots. The sort of soul-searching exercise a party usually does after an election drubbing.

"Fine Gael has never been, and never will be, a party of privilege. Fine Gael is a party of aspiration, a party of enterprise, a party of opportunity, and a party of hope.

"These are our values. And these values guide my ambition for this country," he said.

But the aspiration could be what trips him up. The are three main reasons Fine Gael isn't acting like the dominant party despite its poll ratings. Firstly it can't do anything off-piste without asking Fianna Fail. And it can't even sanction an Independent minister for gender discrimination in case his colleagues take the hump and threaten to walk out on the whole affair.

The shiny new document admits as much. "Given that Fine Gael is part of the Partnership Government with the Independent Alliance and Independents, actions in the lifetime of that Government are governed by the Programme for Government and by the Confidence and Supply agreement with Fianna Fail," it says.

Then there is the legacy of the recession which is summarised best in a housing crisis that affects Fine Gael voters. Homelessness is one thing, but for Mr Varadkar the real problem is that young voters he wants to attract can't afford rent or find a home to call their own.

So Varadkar must give them hope because right now that's all he can offer. The 'Rebuilding Ireland' plan may well work but that's going to take time - something that is rarely afforded politicians in a far-too-fickle 24-hour news cycle. In his speech he went heavy on the aspirational.

He said Fine Gael "aspire to full employment", want to allow everybody to "aspire to home ownership" and "aspire to a promotion or a better job".

He said: "No one could limit the greatness to which our country could aspire."

Likewise in his introduction to the 'non-manifesto', Education Minister Richard Bruton writes: "Ireland is at a watershed. Only now after many years of difficult struggle we are, as a country, in a position to set out plans to shape a future which meets our people's hopes and ambitions."

He talks at length about the need to empower citizens and serve "without fear or favour".

In fact, if you want proof that Fine Gael is attempting to 'find itself within itself', you need only look as far as Bruton's comment on its plan for justice.

"The most fundamental obligation of the State is to protect its people from criminal acts. Fine Gael is the party of law and order."

The 'law-and-order' tradition goes back to the early days of the State and has for decades been part of the definition of Fine Gael. It's not radical thinking in any sense - but that's the point.

Here are some other aspirations from the new policy document:

* Shared paid parental leave in the first year of a child's life will be introduced incrementally.

* Balance the State's finances and provide strong "buffers" against future shocks.

* Develop the same reputation for Ireland as a home for world-leading indigenous SMEs as we have as a location for FDI.

* New approaches to buttress towns and villages as vibrant centres for thriving rural hinterlands.

* A medium-term tax strategy that consistently raises the point at which people on modest incomes reach the top rate of tax in every budget.

I could keep going, but you get the point. It's not radical, just redefined.

Parental leave has been long on the agenda. The talk of facilitating "world-leading indigenous SMEs" is a fancy repackaging of Enda Kenny's "best small country in the world to do business".

So for all the talk in Fine Gael circles about this being a "new departure", the Republic of Opportunity is actually far from the first iteration.

It points to an attempt by Varadkar to merge his new style of pop leadership with old-school politics. He is looking to the past in order to find his substance.

Of course there is an argument that the past is being viewed through rose-tinted glasses.

He told the conference "as a country [Enda Kenny] gave us back our future".

After the Taoiseach delivered his speech, it was widely criticised in the bar of the Slieve Russell hotel.

The faithful, a majority of whom voted for Simon Coveney in the leadership contest, had come expecting a show. Instead they got a list of past achievements and a series of ambitions.

Merging a leader's style with a party's substance is proving difficult and begs the question: is Leo Varadkar defined by Fine Gael or is Fine Gael defined by Leo Varadkar?

Sunday Independent

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