Varadkar dances a leftward shimmy to pair with greatest hits

Sinn Féin threat and pandemic effect give rise to tweaked messaging in ardfheis speech

Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Ardfheis speeches are usually freighted with more than their fair share of motherhood and apple pie. They put a leader in front of an audience of true believers (or at least, an audience where enemies are sworn to be on their best behaviour), extolling the virtues of his or her party, assuring the faithful that it alone has cracked the political formula. Often, this means they end up being banal recitations of party achievements and goals, policy bromides and soon-to-be-broken unbreakable promises.

However, they also play an important role in the internal monologue of political parties. It is the party talking to itself, about itself, outlining what it is, what it wants to do and how it will do it. While the internal psychodramas of political parties are of little interest to real people, and the audience for these speeches is a tight subset of the political beltway, they are nonetheless important staging posts.

That’s why it was noteworthy to see Leo Varadkar – instinctively on the small-government wing of the Fine Gael party – using this set-piece to say his party would lock in extra billions in healthcare spending, improve the lot of the working man and give equal weighting to public and private investment in a plan to double housing output.

Before we lose the run of ourselves, Varadkar has not become a leftie. That’s clear in the incrementalist approach he takes to his flagship package of workplace reforms, always finessed with one eye on the interests of employers. So, statutory sick pay will be introduced, but on a phased basis. Same for a living wage – that might even be done on a voluntary basis at first. The wings of cuckoo funds are to be clipped, but Fine Gael is still focused on “encouraging investment, not chasing it away”.

Party history

There was also a clear attempt to locate its current policies within a broader party history. Early on in his speech, the Tánaiste spoke of Fine Gael’s core belief in the “social market economy”, the “philosophy of the European, centrist and Christian Democrat family”. This is “grounded in the knowledge that a market economy is the best way to generate employment, resources and wealth alongside the understanding that we need a strong state to achieve our social objectives, an active state, a state that cares” – cue swelling music. There was even a subtle reference or two to the just society. And in case it was too subtle, they were capitalised in the copy of the speech distributed to journalists.

Even if you can make the argument that all this is within Fine Gael’s wheelhouse, it is undeniably some way from being the party for the People Who Get Up Early in the Morning. It’s even further from Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All.

So, what’s going on? It’s partially internal: spooked by Sinn Féin, riding the crest of a wave, parties are rushing to convince voters that they are the best custodians of an expanded role for the State.

Part of it is external: the pandemic, and the wider policy response from governments and central banks has put the state back at the centre of modern politics. Around the world, collapse and austerity following the financial crisis has reshaped politics, and given rise to existential threats to the mainstream political system. Even the Tory party, with a leader well versed in ideological promiscuity at the helm, is rebranding as a party of broader state provision.

However, even amid leftward shimmies, Varadkar holds true to some old reliables – recent interventions make clear he is no fan of Ireland’s personal income tax rates.

Meanwhile, the diminishing numbers of those who see themselves as fiscal realists in government fret about how we’re going to pay for all this – fiscal discipline, in bailout era terms. “Leo is the worst offender,” confided one source earlier this summer. “Followed by Micheál Martin.”

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