A minister with a refreshing frankness – his strength and Achilles heel

Apart from frankness, Varadkar has other assets. He is young, competent and telegenic

 Leo Varadkar:  refreshing directness. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Leo Varadkar: refreshing directness. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

Leo Varadkar needs to be careful. Such is his press and public acclaim these days that some of Enda Kenny’s apparatchiks might decide become to do a Mo Mowlam on the Minister for Health.

Mowlam was at the height of her popularity as a straight-talking secretary for Northern Ireland when British prime minister Tony Blair addressed the Labour Party conference in Blackpool in 1998. Blair’s speech included a passage expressing gratitude to each of his cabinet members, which ended with the line “and of course I want to thank our very own Mo”.

As he said this, the large hall of delegates rose instantly to deliver a sustained standing ovation for Mowlam. News channel commentators whispered over the applause in awe about the extraordinary response of conference to the mere mention of her name. After the delegates had resumed their seats Blair commented: “I think I can say without fear of contradiction that that is the first time there has been a standing ovation in the middle of a speech – and the person getting the ovation is not even the person making the speech.”

Cabinet enforcer

A narrative developed from that moment – Blair grew increasingly insecure about Mowlam’s popularity and suspicious of her leadership ambitions. He demoted her from Northern Ireland secretary to a vague role as “cabinet enforcer” a year later.

Whatever about the reliability of that narrative it is clear that in the months after the conference both Blairites and those close to Gordon Brown systematically briefed against Mowlam. Among those spinning strongest against her was Peter Mandelson, who became Northern Ireland secretary when Mowlam was pushed aside.

There were no standing ovations for Varadkar at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, this week but there were at least two occasions when the mere mention of his name by others gave rise to spontaneous and sustained applause.

The first such was on Monday morning during a presentation by management consultant Eddie Molloy that focused on the lack of accountability in Irish government and administration. Molloy name-checked Varadkar as a rare example of a politician prepared to speak frankly about failings.

Garda whistle

blowers He instanced how last March, when it seemed the Government might have been able to shuffle on from the controversy surrounding Garda whistle

blowers, Varadkar had gone out of his way to praise them publicly.

The then minister for transport, tourism and sport had just returned from St Patrick’s Day duties in the southern United States when he reignited the controversy in scripted remarks at a road safety conference, saying he would describe Sgt Maurice McCabe and retired Garda John Wilson as “distinguished” rather than disgusting. It was a speech that put Varadkar, as minister responsible for road safety, on a collision course with the then minister for justice, Alan Shatter.

Molloy, however, also reminded the audience how in September 2012 Varadkar had admitted that the decision by then minister for health James Reilly to prioritise the provision of a primary care centre in his own constituency “looked like stroke politics”.

On Monday afternoon I gave a talk to the summer school myself about, among other things, whether the Government parties can recover their position before the next general election. I jokingly referred to Varadkar as “Leo the lion” and suggested his plain-speaking style might assist Fine Gael in regaining some ground.

Pointing out that he had just been promoted in the recent reshuffle notwithstanding the fact that he had previously been outspoken, I observed that this could prove very liberating for him. Hopes for career advancement typically operate as a brake on politicians and prompt them to toe the party line. A plain-speaking Minister could prove a very refreshing development in Irish politics.

I had left Glenties before Varadkar arrived on Tuesday but by all accounts he was the star turn at that night’s session. His speech emphasised how politicians needed to trust the electorate more and be less fearful of telling the truth.

The Varadkar factor

Whatever concerns advisers in Government Buildings may have, the fact that the Taoiseach promoted Varadkar to the health portfolio suggests he is either relaxed about the Varadkar factor or has decided to leverage the Minister’s popularity in the effort to relaunch the Government.

Many, of course, see the Department of Heath as a poisoned chalice for any ambitious young politician. Varadkar’s stint in there between now and the next election, however, will be sufficiently short to allow him to present his reforming efforts there as a work in progress.

Quite apart from his frankness, Varadkar has other political assets. He is young, competent and telegenic. He is a strong media and parliamentary performer. Although he can mix it with the best of them in partisan political squabbling he also at times takes a broader view of the need for cross-party co-operation in the wider national interest. He has matured since the day he had to rely on colourful one-liners about then taoiseach Brian Cowen and former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to get attention.

It is Varadkar’s refreshing directness that will prove his best asset in his new ministry. He will certainly need it in Hawkins House.