In order to persuade Fine Gael members of their merits, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney took part in debates in May 2017 when they were seeking the leadership of the party following Enda Kenny's departure. This book devotes barely two pages to these debates and even then is much more interested in the optics than the ideas the respective candidates put forward, beyond telling us that Coveney had a vision inspired by the 1960s "Just Society" blueprint and Varadkar hoped the debates "would be almost boring; policy-heavy debates rather than emotional". This is just one example of the degree to which this book is far more preoccupied with superficialities than any depth of analysis.
Perhaps such flimsiness is not surprising; it is far too early for a biography of Varadkar to be anything more than a light dissection of slim pickings. It is almost amusing to read one of the endorsement blurbs for the book: “An absorbing read that charts the highs and lows of an extraordinary political career.” Varadkar, still not 40, and only 15 months as Taoiseach, has not had an extraordinary political career; whether he will have one remains to be seen. Having an Indian father and being the first openly gay Taoiseach make Varadkar’s story interesting, but are not signifiers of a political giant amongst Lilliputians.
The blurb encapsulates the major flaw of this book: it is premature and filled to the brim with breathless, glowing endorsements of Leo’s brilliance and supposed intellectual prowess from named and anonymous fans. That one of the authors, Niall O’Connor, works as a Government adviser and Varadkar was appraised of the full contents of the book before publication does not inspire confidence about objectivity either.
The book is too often hagiography that meekly seeks to pretend it is not by reminding us that Varadkar is media-obsessed, arrogant and socially "awkward", a word used repeatedly. Eoghan Murphy, we learn, as his other friends wondered why he brought stilted Varadkar to the pub, "thought his friend's aloofness gave him an almost statesmanlike aura". Varadkar's social ineptness is not of great significance; what does matter is what he believes in, what political and social visions, if any, he has and why he is Taoiseach.
The problem here is that the book gives nothing of substance in relation to beliefs or ideology. It does give an interesting overview of how Varadkar became Taoiseach. Central to that was much texting, spinning, leaking, shafting, drinking, conditional friendships, obsession with visibility and following the direction of the wind of public opinion. These are the hallmarks of our contemporary politics. If that is part of what makes Varadkar a “very modern” Taoiseach so be it, but it is not something to be lauded, nor, arguably, is it particularly modern.
While the use of technology and social media have changed the methods of communication, and avocado mash instead of rubber chicken is now consumed, the substance of politics and party political culture have hardly changed that much.
The too often fluffy narrative takes the reader through a very comfortable middle-class upbringing for Leo and his sisters, one of whom gushes that he was “a perfect baby … he never cried”. On the same page his mother Miriam tells us that “when he cried his two sisters would cry”. So did Leo cry as a baby or not? And does it really matter a jot?
In relation to Varadkar’s political journey we are told he “flirted with the idea of joining the Progressive Democrats” but opted for Fine Gael, “having been attracted to the leadership qualities of John Bruton”. No elaboration or dissection of this, or the assertion of his “arguments against a welfare state”, or his insistence that the big differences between FF and FG are “ethics and integrity in public office”, is attempted.
A self-described "lousy" medical student, he had "a craving to be noticed", and as a young Fine Gaeler was fond of firing off outraged letters to The Irish Times, including about the "disgrace" of Fine Gael's system for choosing its leader.
The extent to which, after he was elected a TD in 2007, he was “feared” in opposition is exaggerated. He had, it is maintained, an “understanding of the realities of the deepening economic crisis”, without any evidence provided for this assertion. He was viewed as one of “the most right-wing TDs in the party” but appealed to “the traditional centre-right voter”. He also invited Senator Rónán Mullen to speak to his constituency organisation, taking the opportunity to announce proudly that he was a “Christian Democrat”. What these labels mean in Irish politics, however, remains unexplored.
Varadkar objected in 2012 to having a free vote on abortion because “there’s no real tradition of having free votes in Ireland”. This attested to an almost comic conservatism, and is a reminder that Varadkar has consistently played it safe before following public opinion, as was also evidenced by his qualified support for a civil partnership Bill in 2010 and his declaration that “I don’t think referendums are very democratic”.
There are interesting chapters on the tensions between Varadkar as minister for health and minister for justice Alan Shatter when they were in government together and Varadkar's penchant for breaking party ranks on health and justice issues, though the assertion that he "put his political career on the line to defend police whistleblowers" is a glorious exaggeration given the scale of the disgust at the way Maurice McCabe and others were treated. The book also adds interesting detail about the manner in which former minister for health James Reilly was sidelined and shabbily treated.
The chapter on Varadkar’s preparations to courageously come out as gay live on radio and the anguish it caused to him and those close to him is absorbing. But the book is also a reminder that Varadkar was nothing special as a minister in the transport, health and social protection portfolios and always seemed far more interested in profile and the top job.
The elevation came to him quickly and easily and Varadkar and his colleagues, as evidenced by interviews undertaken for the book, are quite happy to talk about the media strategies involved in his campaign and to publicise key private emails and text messages, including those between Simon Harris and Varadkar, to highlight their supposed acuities. In doing do, they are still just jostling for favour and position, another version of choirboys singing for their supper.
He insisted in his initial months as Taoiseach that “I need to get a few wins”. He seemed to get a few of them by playing hardball over Brexit and the Border, but that is very much an unfinished story. He did not play a significant public role in this year’s Eighth Amendment campaign, because he was playing it safe again.
One conclusion, it seems, is that Varadkar is a "very modern" Taoiseach because he "told his people" (his people?!) they would "live in a Republic that would be equal and where prejudice would have no hold". That Irish Republic does not yet exist; if it ever does in its fullest sense, or if it fails to materialise, and a mature Varadkar plays a key role in either realising it, or failing to promote it, then we might get a better, more analytical and more nuanced book about him.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin and an Irish Times columnist. His new book, On the Edge: Ireland's Offshore Islands – A Modern History, will be published on October 1st by Profile Books