Leo’s first year: A Taoiseach who knows his limitations
Varadkar has had triumphs including the referendum, but mistakes are regretted
Leo Varadkar on his visit to the headquarters and heritage museum of the Orange Order in Belfast on Friday. He is the first taoiseach to visit the HQ of the Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant organisation. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
For some who have observed Leo Varadkar at close quarters since he took over as Taoiseach, his preparedness for the twice-weekly Dáil jousts with Opposition leaders provide a point of difference from his predecessor.
At 2pm on Tuesday afternoons and 12pm on Wednesdays, the Leader’s Questions sessions are, along with the Cabinet meeting on a Tuesday morning, the key events of the political week.
“Enda could leave Cabinet at ten-to-two and walk straight down to the chamber,” said one member of the Cabinet. “Leo ends his Cabinet at 1pm at the latest. If it has to come back later on in the day, it will come back.”
After Cabinet, the Taoiseach will discuss with his staff, and often some Ministers, the questions Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald and others are likely to try to catch him out on.
But the Taoiseach knows his own mind. Those who fill the brown leather seats around Varadkar have noticed that, along with the voluminous briefings prepared for him, he also has his own handwritten notes of the arguments he wants to make in the Dáil chamber. This coming Thursday, Varadkar will have occupied that special seat reserved for the Taoiseach for exactly one year.
His tenure so far has seen successes such as the December Brexit agreement – which included the so-called “backstop” aimed at preventing a hard border – and the recent passage of the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment by a landslide.
Setbacks such as the resignation of former tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, which pushed the country to the brink of a Christmas election, and the PR disaster that was the Strategic Communications Unit (SCU), have come and gone. Others, such as the CervicalCheck scandal, are likely to be recurring themes of his premiership.
Yet, one year on, Fine Gael is happy with its leader, and it has good reason to be. It now polls consistently above 30 per cent, with a leader whose approval ratings, until recently, matched Bertie Ahern in his heyday.
Varadkar is – according even to those who had doubts about his capacity to handle the duties of a taoiseach – working extremely hard, and he expects the same of those around him, both staff and Ministers. Late night and early morning calls and texts – “constant contact”, according to one colleague – have dispelled the perception some had of a politician who was laconic and laid back.
Varadkar built his successful leadership bid on the back of being accessible to his parliamentary party, and this has continued.
“If I send him a WhatsApp, I know I’ll get a response in 24, 48 hours,” said one Fine Gaeler, while another said: “He might be a bit slower but he’ll still get back to you.”
Those who work in Government Buildings say he carves out an hour most days to be alone in his office to respond to such texts, WhatsApp messages and emails.
The solicitous approach has been adopted on other levels. One Minister said that whenever assistance is requested and if Varadkar agrees to help, it is done quietly.
“He does that under the radar, to win your confidence, to win your support.”
His approach to chairing Cabinet is also different. The days of sending a memo to Government Buildings and expecting it to sail through without debate are over, said one source.
Here, there is another comparison with Ahern, who is said to have always prodded, always tested the knowledge of his ministers.
The same is now echoed of Varadkar: his questions at Cabinet are meant, in equal measure, to test policy and keep the sponsoring Minister on his or her toes.
Outside Cabinet, if a proposal or paper is introduced at a meeting and Varadkar has yet to have read it, he will adjourn until he has fully appraised himself of the contents.
He is loyal, his Ministers say, but “if there is a cock-up, he expects it to be cleared up”. Mistakes that impinge on his personal agenda are viewed especially dimly, said one source.
As with his leadership campaign, long-term strategy is kept within a tight group, with Brian Murphy, Varadkar’s chief-of-staff, and Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy at the top. Paschal Donohoe is also in the loop, while Varadkar and Simon Coveney work closely on Brexit.
Brian Murphy’s political nous and his knowledge of the workings of Fine Gael are widely admired, while Eoghan Murphy is described as the “quiet lieutenant” who can convey a message to the Taoiseach.
But whereas TDs see the Varadkar operation as accessible, others believe it was easier to get the ear of Kenny’s advisers. Varadkar has also yet to fully get to grips with maintaining discipline across the Government and the party, argue some.
The last time, we had someone who was brilliant with people but bad on television. Now we have someone who is brilliant at television but bad with people
“I get the sense they are very busy being busy but not putting enough time into management,” said one figure. “He is managing the big stuff, but just not paying enough attention to the small stuff.”
An unwillingness to pay as much attention to “legacy issues” is also seen as a weakness. “It is all about now.” In addition, neutral observers see an unhealthy “blurring of the lines between Fine Gael and the Government”, even after the controversy over the SCU.
Part of the trade-off in replacing Kenny was accepting a degree of political inexperience. “The last time, we had someone who was brilliant with people but bad on television,” said one source. “Now we have someone who is brilliant at television but bad with people.”
Varadkar is aware of his limitations, say his supporters, and, as with other issues, is working to rectify his faults.
“He covers his weakness by doing a lot of events with colleagues,” said one Minister.
For someone who is described as shy or aloof, the Taoiseach is consistently on the road attending events and meeting people. He sees his public role much more in line with that of presidents such as Mary McAleese and Michael D Higgins rather than previous occupants of his office.
When he took over from Kenny, there was talk of the Taoiseach being accessible to the public while still maintaining the dignity of the office.
“He is determined not to dilute that,” said one Minister. “He travels in a convoy of two or three cars.”
Varadkar has reflected deeply on the controversy over Frances Fitzgerald last December, which saw Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin emerge the political winner
Varadkar’s first year has seen mistakes, such as his Love, Actually-referencing debut in 10 Downing Street, and when, at the Speaker’s Lunch on Capitol Hill for the St Patrick’s Day programme, he said he “tried to do what I could do” to help Donald Trump with his Doonbeg resort.
Such misjudgments have given heart to his opponents that he will make similar missteps in an election campaign.
The Trump episode, in particular, is said to have hurt and Varadkar is “painfully aware” of how poorly it reflected on him.
“But he has the maturity to say: ‘I got that wrong, I should have done things differently,’” said one Minister.
Varadkar has also reflected deeply on the controversy over Frances Fitzgerald last December, which saw Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin emerge the political winner.
Despite the brinksmanship, Fine Gael was not organisationally ready for an election then. Work has been under way to rectify that. The confidence and supply deal with Fianna Fáil is approaching its end. Varadkar has spoken of extending it, but those around him expect an election in the near future.
Similar to how his leadership campaign was prepared with Trappist levels of secrecy, election planning is taking place far away from the gaze of Leinster House.
The calling of an election, if there is to be one, is the Taoiseach’s prerogative. One lesson taken from the snap contest called by British prime minister Theresa May was that the Conservative Party machine was totally unprepared.
As Varadkar begins his second year as Taoiseach, those close to him insist the same will not happen to their leader as he approaches the biggest decision of his career: if, and when, to seek his own mandate.