Leo Varadkar is set to govern as a chief - not a chairman
The Taoiseach is more direct and proactive and less diplomatic than Enda Kenny
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and the Cabinet: Mr Varadkar is likely to scale down the engagements he will attend and become a “bit more removed”. Photograph: Maxwellphotography.ie
The opening acts of any new government are public relations; the way a new Taoiseach and Ministers see themselves in the most ideal form, and the way they want us to see them, too.
As he announced his Cabinet in the Dáil on Wednesday evening, Leo Varadkar cast himself in the role of taskmaster-in-chief, setting out a firm policy direction for his Ministers to take. It was a message to his Cabinet, the apparatus of government and the public at large.
Varadkar’s aides were quick to underline the import of the speech, and the message from those around the new Taoiseach was clear.
“That speech matters,” is how one senior official described the message from the top. “These were considered views.”
It was both a roll-call of appointments and an instruction to get to work. Simon Coveney, Varadkar’s vanquished opponent in the Fine Gael leadership contest, allowed himself a smile as the Taoiseach said the new Minister for Foreign Affairs would be “co-ordinating the whole of Government response to Brexit”.
Yet he looked surprised when Varadkar came to speak about his old brief in the Department of Housing.
It is likely to spell the end of Coveney’s controversial scheme for first-time buyers and it could herald greater public funding for social housing.
A referendum next year on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution was also promised, and further orders issued, such as telling Richard Bruton, re-appointed Minister for Education, to secure a “broad consensus” on third-level funding.
Since Brian Farrell’s seminal study on the nature of leadership exercised by taoisigh – Chairman or Chief: The Role of Taoiseach in Irish Government – every holder of that office has been put in one or the other of Farrell’s categories.
Seán Lemass was a chief, firmly setting the direction of his modernising government, but who, nevertheless, did not get bogged down in the details of reform.
Meanwhile, WT Cosgrave, as president of the Executive Council, was a chairman who sought to ensure the foundations of the Irish Free State were steady, prizing collegiality.
Pre-emptive adjudications only serve to make fools of those who make them. The most recent example was the lauding of Theresa May as the “Iron May-den”, Boudicca and Margaret Thatcher rolled into one.
While an early judgment of Varadkar will have to wait until at least he is one year in office, his Dáil speech showed the type of taoiseach he wants to be, and the type of leader he wants the public to see: more chief than chairman.
The chatter in Government circles anticipates someone who will be different from his predecessor, Enda Kenny, widely acknowledged to have been a chairman.
The possible approach Varadkar will take – and the clearest way of comparing to his predecessors – can be guessed at by how he has acted in Government and how he ran his leadership campaign.
If the Cabinet is the decision-making body of Government, Cabinet subcommittees are the drivers of policy formulation.
In this forum, according to sources, Kenny was usually happy to allow “people get on with it, as long as they accounted for themselves well”.
“But if he got a sense there was anything up or off, he wouldn’t let it go,” said one Government figure. “I suspect he didn’t spend hours reading his briefs, but I suspect Leo will. You wouldn’t think Enda would spend his weekends reading [policy] journals, but Leo would.”
Kenny’s style, according to sources, was further evidenced by his reluctance to tackle people, often delegating the tough messages to Martin Fraser, the secretary general to the Government, his chief of staff Mark Kennelly or, during the last government, his economic adviser Andrew McDowell.
“Martin would challenge officials and say: ‘You can’t do that, you can’t do this’. Enda was kind of the peacekeeper. He definitely wanted everyone to like him.
“It was like hauling people in front of the headmaster because something bad has happened and you’d want them to be hauled over the coals, but there would be no slapping of the wrists. I think he [Leo] will be far more pointed.”
“Kenny had some of the traits of Bertie Ahern,” another official said, but added that the ruthless side of both men was not seen in open forums. “In close quarters, there would have been those who were made to feel the heat, and would have known it.”
Another official agrees: “Bertie was like Enda. He would always bring it back to the man on the street: ‘I met a woman and she couldn’t get a medical card’.”
“I think Leo would be more like Martin Fraser, he would confidentially challenge people on detail. Leo definitely challenges, it can be quite pointed. I have seen secretary generals having to defend assistant secretaries [from his criticisms].
“He would ask about certain policies and specifics, such as how much, and when is it going to happen? Can you not do it any sooner? And you’d have an official sitting there red-faced. I think he will challenge people and, and I think he will challenge the Ministers.
“Cowen would be more like Varadkar, he would challenge a bit. He would say: ‘For f*ck’s sake, lads’.”
Another senior Government figure says both Kenny and Varadkar made their points of view known, but in a different fashion.
“They are both direct but Leo is less diplomatic. I’ve never seen Leo lose his temper but if he did I’d imagine it’s like being bollocked by a robot.”
When he was Minister for Health, Varadkar would often email officials, inquiring after specific measures at 10 or 11pm, although this was somewhat offset by his arriving late for morning meetings, a habit he has since stamped out.
While he seems likely to expect his Ministers to follow his broad policy aims, and will know the detail of policy intimately, sources also say he will allow some leeway.
“He is open to persuasion and he will listen,” said one. “He is an active leader, but he is going to give people a free rein.”
He displayed the same attributes during his leadership campaign, according to one figure who worked closely with him.
“He is not a micro manager, he is not across every step of the process. He expects it to be done as he asked it to be done, but he allows people to come up with their own ideas.
“It is very much: ‘Don’t come to me with a problem.’ He will kick the tyres of your ideas and you have to be ready for it.”
His command of policy was also evident during the hustings for the Fine Gael leadership, when he was at ease across a broad range of areas.
He is also said to be quick to make a decision, once he has been presented with the facts and arguments.
“He’d look at a project and if he thought it was good, he’d be behind it 100 per cent,” said one Minster. “If he didn’t like it he’d say no. Kenny was different. Kenny could promise you the sun, moon and the stars and, a week later, you’d find nothing had been done. Leo won’t waste your time.”
At Cabinet itself, Varadkar has been known to stray away from his own portfolios and question colleagues.
“He’d be generally quite supportive, but inquisitive,” said one Minister. “‘A question and a comment,’ he’d say.”
He previously made his concerns on policies being pursued by colleagues clear, such as Coveney’s rent certainty measures introduced late last year.
In his opening engagements with Ministers this week, Varadkar encouraged some to adopt his own style.
“I get the sense it is going to be more collaborative,” said one Minister. “He has been telling people to ask the right questions, probably of the Civil Service. Not: ‘Can I do this?’ but more: ‘I want to do this, how do I make it happen?’”
He has already announced that there will be special Cabinet meetings on substantive issues, such as climate change, but experienced operators caution against Garret FitzGerald-style Cabinet meetings that stretch on for hours.
“They all do that when they go in. But he is quite controlling. If people aren’t doing stuff that doesn’t accord with what he wants, he will say it.”
There are problems with exerting too much control, however, and benefits to a chairman-style operation, along the lines of Kenny’s premiership.
“The danger is if that you think you are the best strategist and the best at policy, which he does, you can overstretch yourself.”
His attention can also drift if he is not interested in the issue at hand, according to one official.
But he has signalled he will delegate, such as allowing his Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, chair some Cabinet subcommittees, attend State functions and go on trade missions, a move probably designed to ensure he not distracted from putting his own shape on the Government.
Well-placed sources also say Varadkar is likely to scale down the number of engagements the Taoiseach will attend and become a “bit more removed” in order to “increase the gravitas of the office”.
In Paschal Donohoe, now Minister for Finance and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Varadkar also has a trusted ally who subscribes to his agenda.
In his earlier speech on Wednesday accepting the Dáil’s nomination, Varadkar praised Lemass, one of Farrell’s chiefs, as a “modernising and reforming taoiseach who transformed this country”.
In establishing himself as his Government’s taskmaster, Varadkar has initially set his premiership down the route of previous chiefs.
One who has observed his style at the heart of government believes it will leave little room for mediocre competency.
“He’ll be brilliant or he’ll be a disaster.”