Varadkar’s election set to create more combative Dáil
Taoiseach to ‘call out’ left-wing parties while Opposition ready to challenge signalled shift to right
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. There is a consensus in Leinster House that a Varadkar-led Government will be edgier, more combative. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Leo Varadkar has promised that his Government will be different. For one, he says, he wants to scotch any public perception Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are twins separated at birth.
Secondly, he has vowed to take on the left-wing parties of various hues that exist, and “call them out” on policies which he says have failed in every country from Greece to Venezuela.
So what kind of challenge will he be in the Dáil? There is a consensus in Leinster House this week that a Varadkar-led Government will be edgier, more combative.
Equally, he will make Fine Gael an identifiably right-of-centre party in the eyes of many sources, who point again and again to his comments that Fine Gael is the party for people who get up early in the morning.
Fianna Fáil is in a different position to others in the Dáil: It has agreed a confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael and gives it support on key votes, including confidence motions and the budget.
Some leading Fianna Fáil figures have had an uneasy relationship with Varadkar, one that came to a head during last year’s coalition negotiations when he was the most abrasive of the Fine Gael negotiators.
Everyone in Fianna Fáil recognises that Varadkar is an threat, though opinion divides on how he should be tackled. The party’s finance spokesman Michael McGrath believes they should stay steady as she goes.
“I think our approach will remain the same. The confidence-and-supply agreement will enter a new phase when he becomes Taoiseach. We have have been honourable in the way that we acted so far.
“At the same time, we do not want to be taken for granted. A more confrontational or aggressive approach to us does not lend itself to an agreement working well,” he said.
McGrath speaks openly. Others do so privately. One Fianna Fáil TD says Varadkar is a threat, but that there are advantages, too: “He will move Fine Gael a little to the right which will suit us as it will distinguish them from [us].”
“But we should not become complacent,” added the TD. “He is making a pitch with his early-morning comments for small businesses and middle-income earners.
“They are the people whose votes Fine Gael borrowed from us in 2011. If we are not careful, they could steal them permanently. I think we urgently need to redefine ourselves, and hone our messages.
“I think we have gone a little too much left, with the water charges especially,” said the TD, while a colleague believes Varadkar will not quickly call an election, following the result of the British election.
The relationship between Varadkar and Sinn Féin will be fraught. “He needs to grow up,” says Mary Lou McDonald. “It’s a bigger responsibility he has now far beyond a slanging match he enjoys engaging in.
“I regard his view of the world as quintessentially Tory. But it’s another thing to question the democratic credentials of your opponent. I have the same democratic mandate as he has.”
Her colleague Eoin Ó Broin points out that Sinn Féin will also target those who get up early in the morning, but it will highlight “all the failings in healthcare, in welfare and services, too.
“In six years he had a relatively undistinguished career as a minister. If he stands over his record he will find it challenged. The core policies of Fine Gael will remain the same in my view,” said the Dublin TD.
Labour, however, sees no downside to Varadkar’s rise: “It will allow us to sever all connections with Fine Gael and with the coalition,” says one of its Oireachtas members.
It will get rid of the prospect of a coalition with Fine Gael, agrees Aodhán Ó Riordáin: “[Varadkar’s] instincts are right wing and even the suggestion of curtailing trade union rights is playing to an audience he is seeking to attract.”
However, Labour must be careful, too: “We can’t make the mistakes we made between 2008 and 2010 and be absolutely against everything. We were angry but we need to be a bit more.”
The Greens abstained on the election vote of Enda Kenny, but it voted against Varadkar. That illustrates much about the party’s view of Varadkar: “He has been the most hostile within Fine Gael to the green agenda,” says Eamon Ryan.
“He never missed an opportunity to have a cut against the green approach. He has a record that is right wing and anti-green. It’s up to him to move away from that and he really needs to.”
Mick Barry of Solidarity believes all Fine Gael TDs are right wing, but part of him relishes the edge that Varadkar may bring: “He is actually an ideas man with a conservative ideology.
“Leader’s Questions has been a bit of a borefest until now. It has the potential to become lively and interesting.”