Varadkar will need a lot of courage and a dollop of good luck

Stephen Collins: First test will be to avoid wasting recent gains on spending splurge

Fine Gael leadership contender Leo Varadkar: “a superb media performer who speaks the kind of language the public understands”. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Fine Gael leadership contender Leo Varadkar: “a superb media performer who speaks the kind of language the public understands”. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

The biggest challenge facing Leo Varadkar when he takes over as taoiseach, as now appears inevitable, is whether he will be able to provide the kind of inspirational leadership that can defuse the anger which still haunts Irish politics after the financial crash.

Varadkar’s strength is as a superb media performer who speaks the kind of language the public understands but he is going to need a lot of courage and a dollop of good luck to translate that into successful leadership.

His appeal to the public in the current anti-politician age is that he doesn’t come across like a normal politician even though he will need political skills of the highest order if he is to succeed.

The Government he is about to lead will face a range of economic and political pressures in the coming months that will test those skills to the limit but his most difficult battle of all will be to persuade the public to give him a fair run.

One of the big problems facing him, and indeed the entire political system, is the corrosive cynicism and negativity that has grown up around politics in recent times

Assuming Fianna Fáil and the Independents allow him to take office the new taoiseach will be plunged in at the deep end with the public-sector pay talks and the framing of the budget for 2018 the biggest challenges in the months ahead.

The outcome of both of those complicated sets of negotiations, which require neat political footwork and the ability to make decisions under pressure, will demonstrate whether Varadkar has more to offer than a good line in talk.

Corrosive cynicism

One of the big problems facing him, and indeed the entire political system, is the corrosive cynicism and negativity that has grown up around politics in recent times. Paradoxically this appears to have reached its zenith just when the political system has demonstrated its ability to survive the biggest crisis in half a century.

In the UK it was the anger of the older voters that paved the way to Brexit

One senior Minister remarked during the week that he had never before encountered so much anger and resentment from the electorate. He told stories about being subjected to verbal abuse on the streets of his constituency from random voters who he would not have described as among the most disadvantaged in society.

This is a problem across the democratic world and there is no easy explanation for it. In the UK it was the anger of the older voters that paved the way to Brexit. In the United States is was the anger of the white working class that saw Donald Trump to victory, while in France it was the frustration of the young that provided the bedrock of support for Marine Le Pen.

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar’s campaign includes the slogan: “Welfare cheats cheat us all.” Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar: "His appeal to the public in the current anti-politician age is that he doesn’t come across like a normal politician even though he will need political skills of the highest order if he is to succeed." File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

The conventional explanation is that the anger is a by-product of the financial crisis that rocked the western world but the irony is that the most vocal are often those who escaped relatively unscathed from it.

In the UK there has been a big shift in wealth and influence to the elderly over the past decade yet they voted in huge numbers to take their country out of the European Union while the young who have borne the brunt of the crisis voted to stay in.

In Ireland some of the most negative voices, at least on the airwaves, come from representatives of the various public-sector groups who have secure jobs and pensions, while the voices of the majority of workers who don’t have these advantages are not heard with the same regularity.

What he was obviously trying to do was to identify with the majority of people who work hard 

Varadkar has made a pitch to this latter group by saying that his focus will be on people who get up early in the morning. Of course he was immediately misinterpreted as being indifferent to the needs of people who for health or other reasons simply can’t get up early.

What he was obviously trying to do was to identify with the majority of people who work hard and whose efforts underpin the cost of running the institutions of the State on which everything else depends.

Mobilising and inspiring the majority of people to support the kind of policies that will ensure that all the sacrifices of the past few years are not squandered in another unsustainable spending splurge is going to be Varadkar’s first big test.

Inclusiveness

He has obviously taken the lesson of Emmanuel Macron’s victory to heart. The new French president, just a year older than Varadkar, has shaken French politics to the core with a message of hope and inclusiveness that is predicated on facing up to hard economic realities.

"Barring a last-minute disaster, which can never been ruled out in politics, Leo Varadkar will take over the party leadership and the taoiseach’s office with an emphatic mandate from his party." 

Whether Macron will succeed in his ambitions is the big question but already he has managed to transform the political landscape of France not just by inspirational speeches but by challenging people about the need to reform outdated structures.

Ireland, like France, has responded to Brexit by embracing the European idea. Unlike Macron, Varadkar does not have a new party he can shape in his own image but he has already received a massive vote of confidence from his parliamentary colleagues which should give him a lot of room for manoeuvre.

Barring a last-minute disaster, which can never been ruled out in politics, he will take over the party leadership and the taoiseach’s office with an emphatic mandate from his party. That is when the country will find out what Leo is really made of.

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