Continuity, not change, order of the day for Varadkar’s first 100
Early days see directness and caution, and no striking out in any bold new direction
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Fine Gael think-in in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, ahead of the resumption of the Dáil next week. Photograph: PA Wire
Directness and caution. These have been the main characteristics of Leo Varadkar’s first 100 days as Ireland’s leader, a milestone he reaches next Thursday.
The new Taoiseach – it’s still appropriate to call him that but not for too much longer – has settled comfortably into the role he has planned for and prepared for and strategised about for much of his life.
But congenial as he may find his new surroundings, he has not changed the Government he inherited in a significant way. A distinct Varadkar administration has yet to take shape.
Varadkar has sought to preserve one of his great political assets – the sense amongst many voters that he is a bit different from other politicians, that he “tells it as it is”.
He spoke plainly to Solidarity TD Paul Murphy in the Dáil after the Jobstown verdicts, telling him “you’re not a victim”, and that while he may not have been guilty of false imprisonment he was guilty of “thuggery”. Fine Gaelers long since tired of Murphy’s showboating – and perhaps other middle Irelanders that constitute Varadkar’s electoral target market – cheered a little.
He laid out his own position on abortion even if the political and constitutional treatment of the issue remains a minefield. He has committed to a referendum in the first half of next year.
He has stuck to his guns on tax cuts for the “people who get up early in the morning”, while promising more State investment in housing, infrastructure and some public services. Significantly, he used this week’s think-in to stress tax cuts for middle-income workers. He does not send out these messages by accident.
Cabinet colleagues say their meetings are more businesslike, more focussed on decision-making. He is across most of what is happening in their departments, they say. You have to go into meetings prepared. He can be alarmingly blunt. Not for him Kenny’s endless circumlocutions and shoulder-punching and assurances this things will work themselves out. In private, even more so than in public, he means what he says, say people who deal with him behind closed doors.
The past week saw the Taoiseach chair his first round of Cabinet sub-committee meetings on topics such as the economy, health and housing. Varadkar cut the number committees from 10 to five, and a discursive, inclusive approach to policy-formulation was evident.
“Enda would be more like the headmaster going around the table and ticking off lists,” said a source. “Leo asks for views and allows debate. It is a different style. It was his first time, so it could change to be more cut and dry.”
Varadkar emphasised inclusivity to such an extent that he asked everyone at the meetings – officials, advisers and politicians – to introduce themselves.
It was endearing, nevertheless, said one figure, to see senior Ministers and officials introduce themselves as Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Finance, Martin Fraser, secretary to the Government, and even Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach.
The relationship between Fine Gael and the Independents, strained at times under Kenny, has been reset. That is not, say those in the Independent Alliance, necessarily a slight on Kenny.
This Government construct is a strange beast, and it took some time for those involved to get used to it. Relationships were improving as the Government found its feet, but there was a sense that the first fraught few months of its existence – pockmarked by rows – left a mark.
“We got off to an awkward start with the Kenny people, and I don’t know if we ever got over that,” said an Independent source. “They were bruised after the election. It was a curious relationship.
“They wouldn’t be in power if it wasn’t for us, yet they resented us being there. There was a sense we were interlopers. You are resetting now from a different position. We started off on more of a clean slate with them [Varadkar’s people].”
At the Fine Gael think-in this week Varadkar paid tribute to “the support and endeavour of our Independent colleagues in Government”.
To be Taoiseach is to be confronted with immediate political and policy problems on a daily basis that require an immediate response. Varadkar’s first arrived even before his first day in the job when his predecessor left him the parting gift of Máire Whelan’s nomination to the Court of Appeal. He shut down the controversy with firmness, ramming through her appointment. Directness again.
What he has not done is politically relaunch the Government or offer it any substantial change of direction.
Indeed, it would be hard to make the case that Varadkar’s Government is all that different different to Kenny’s; in no significant way has the policy of his administration departed from that of his predecessor.
There has clearly been a generation change in the leadership of the country, but continuity, not change, has been the order of the day.
This is rooted in Varadkar’s own natural caution, his instinct to carefully weigh up his chosen course of action before he embarks upon it. It is the flip side of the coin to the directness and plain-speaking: he likes to be sure before he moves. His modus operandi is to consult and consider before acting or speaking.
But that is harder as Taoiseach because there is so much more on your plate, and it is clearly taking Varadkar time to get used to his new role.
As a Minister you can behave like a submarine, surfacing periodically to launch your missiles, and Varadkar was an accomplished submarine captain. But as Taoiseach there is no submerging. You’re always on the surface, always on. Always on the media’s radar.
Varadkar spent at least some of the summer mulling a major speech in the autumn, defining his Government’s priorities, setting his own stamp on the administration’s direction. Now he has shied away from the idea. But every speech that the Taoiseach makes is significant.
The caution has also manifested itself in the emphasis that the new administration has placed on communications. A significantly enhanced communications infrastructure has been established in Government Buildings, even if it has often seemed that the message is Varadkar himself.
Tweeting, jogging with Trudeau, showing off socks, attending pride parades, posing in lycra – there has been an awful lot of non-political communication.
This is not without risk or potential political cost. His opponents have and will seek to paint the character of the Varadkar administration as spin over substance – a charge that may well prove sticky.
The power axis at the top of Government includes Donohoe and Eoghan Murphy, the Minister for Housing, who is Varadkar’s closest ally.
Kenny often deferred to his Minister for Finance. But Varadkar likes to be on top of the finance brief too. The Varadkar-Donohoe relationship is this Government’s engine, but it is less a partnership of equals than what went before, insiders say.
Those close to the Taoiseach say measuring activity of 100 days spanning the quiet summer months is unfair measurement. It would be different, one source said, if the 100 days led up to December or January.
Varadkar himself disdains these artificial benchmarks, say his intimates, even as he knows well the assessments are coming.
The first phase was always about bedding down the change of leadership, they say. There may be an undeniable logic about that, but it’s a far cry from the expectations of a kinetic Varadkar premiership that excited the Fine Gael trenchermen during the leadership campaign.
Ultimately, the 100 days has been about settling in, not about striking out in any bold new direction.
The second 100 days, bringing Varadkar’s Government up to Christmas, will be more decisive. Government insiders believe the public’s view of the Taoiseach will largely be fixed by then
He will have to demonstrate, like all leaders, that he can get things done, said one source.
By day 200 Varadkar’s Government will have (presumably) passed its first budget, reset its working relationship with Fianna Fáil, launched a capital investment plan and spatial strategy that will outline how he wants Ireland to develop, have finally dealt with water charges, decided on what form an abortion referendum will take and – privately, perhaps – decided if there is to be an election in the first part of next year.
The warm-up is over; the big match is about to begin.