Leaders’ debate: For one dramatic moment, the Taoiseach is like a rabbit in headlights

TV review: There are no knockouts, or even punches, in this gentle game of political gotcha

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pauses when asked by Virgin Media debate moderator Pat Kenny if he has ever taken illegal drugs. Video: Virgin Media

 

Time stands still, tumbleweed catches around Pat Kenny’s feet, the continents drift further apart. And then, after the expectant silence goes on for another bit, Leo Varadkar sputters an answer to the question of whether he ever took illegal drugs.

“Yes … but it was obviously a long time ago.” The Taoiseach looks like the tiniest rabbit caught in all the headlights in the world.

It is a rare moment of drama during a leaders’ debate in which skin and hair conspicuously fail to fly. Instead, the face-off between Varadkar and Micheál Martin has all the red hot intensity of two health club regional managers catching up to compare notes. A few differences may bubble up. But in the end we’re all friends here. It isn’t tooth and nail. It isn’t even pinky finger and baby toe. 

Tellingly, one of the most heated exchanges during the 80-minute back-and-forth on Virgin Media One comes as they get into their records as ministers for health. Phrases such as “treatment purchase fund” are tossed about with abandon as the pair let their inner technocrats soar free. Just half way in and we’ve already approaching snooze factor 11.

On tonight’s evidence Varadkar and Martin appear to have built up a rapport of sorts over the course of the confidence-and-supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. It’s not unthinkable that – against the common rumour – they may now even grudgingly respect one another.

And so there is no genuine antagonism – though an impish expression steals over Martin’s face as he presses Varadkar to answer the drug question (it’s obviously a flat “no, never” from an FF man who might consider a second Hobnob with his tea slightly outré).

The upshot is that instead of attempting to land punches – let alone knock-out blows – the two leaders are here to play a gentlest game of political gotcha.

Leo Varadkar, Pat Kenny and Micheál Martin at the Virgin Media leaders’ debate. Photograph: Maxwells
Leo Varadkar, Pat Kenny and Micheál Martin at the Virgin Media leaders’ debate. Photograph: Maxwells

The sense of anti-climax is abetted by the staid setting. The studio background is drab and un-engaging. Pat Kenny and the two politicians are all dressed similarly. Oh for a misplaced boom-mic or streaker to liven the whole thing up.

We are at least spared the kind of pre-cooked lines that are a curse of similar debates the UK and America. Talking points are dispensed with at the top, as Varadkar and Martin are allowed to deliver prepared remarks.  But apart from that this is a robust chinwag – just not very thrilling. “Have you no shame at all?”, says Martin at one point, but it doesn’t sound as if he really means it or thinks Varadkar has all that much to be ashamed off.

Kenny is sturdy and unexciting as adjudicator. He does veer curiously off course at the beginning in asking the leaders whether, with the 100th anniversary of the Civil War approaching, it’s time their two centrist parties set aside petty differences and merged. Shockingly neither is up for it but, somewhat surprisingly, Varadkar does offer the prospect of a coalition.

“You’re both kind of in agreement here,” says Kenny at one point. He’s absolutely correct. In theory that’s good news for those who cherish prudent government. But consensus politics can make for dull television.

Too often that is the case as we plunge down and down into the seventh circle of blandness. If there’s a drearier place in the universe tonight than the Virgin Media studios, I don’t want to see it.

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