Enda keeps an eye on Leo – his lion in pussycat clothing

Miriam Lord stalks the corridors of the Fota Island Hotel in Cork at the Fine Gael think-in

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Health Minister Leo Varadkar converse over a cup of tea on the final day of the Fine Gael think-in at Fota Island Resort in Co Cork. Photograph: Barbara Lindberg

In an unusual twist to a tired format, Fine Gael cooked up a think-in this year that actually delivered food for thought.

This was more by accident than design, but by the time all the thinking had been thunk in the comfortable surrounds of the Fota Island Hotel in Cork, there remained much to mull over for the departing politicians and their media observers. And it was mainly due to Leo Varadkar.

He might bashfully protest to the contrary, but Enda’s new Minister for Health eclipsed his boss at the two-day pre-parliamentary term gathering.

If this were just a matter of a minor public disagreement between a Taoiseach and a headstrong young minister, it wouldn’t be particularly significant. Enda’s reported “smackdown” of Leo for speaking out of turn on the budget provided lively copy from what is a dull set-piece event. A welcome little yarn.


But in the normal scheme of things, the story would fade as the political season gets going in earnest next week.

This episode, however, was different. More than just a passing spat. As people were leaving yesterday, there were some intriguing questions.

What’s Leo’s game? Is he just being himself – shooting from the hip with his candid comments and winning plaudits from the public for what they see as his refreshingly honest approach to his job?

Or is there a bigger picture?

On the opening day, he was the centre of attention yet he managed to project an air of easy nonchalance about the commotion he was causing.

Good news


Enda Kenny

took to the microphones to spread his good news about things looking better for the economy and his Government’s role in bringing this about, there was no sign of Varadkar. He would be arriving later, we were told.

The Taoiseach was in control – flanked by Frances Fitzgerald (now leading the party's general election committee) and Michael Noonan (exuding an air of steely competence) – and was setting out Fine Gael's stall for the battle to come. Strategist Mark Mortell, who will be a key player in the party's push for a second term, watched from the sidelines.

There was an energy about it all and the sense that a meticulous plan was being pushed out to follow a well plotted course to the polls.

Then, as the briefing was still happening, Varadkar strolled through the French windows and hung about quietly in the background. Then a couple of journalists detached themselves from the pack and went towards him. The word quickly spread. In a matter of minutes, Enda’s press conference was over. The pack had moved on.

It felt like there were two centres of power at work in Fota. The Taoiseach and Varadkar, both exerting a gravitational pull with their presence. People, as would be expected, drawn towards the party leader, but also gravitating towards Leo too. Not that he deigned to notice.

‘Moonlight in Mayo’

On Thursday night, the Taoiseach was in fine form. He worked the bar after dinner, sang a few choruses of

Moonlight in Mayo

with the band and prevailed upon them to sing a bit of

Bruce Springsteen


Enda left at about one in the morning – he had a date with Morning Ireland and needed his sleep. Leo, with admirers in tow, stayed on to the last. He sang too, we hear, reading the words from his iPhone.

It was a late night, but not wildly late in the style of Fianna Fáil’s infamous “garglegate” a few years ago.

Everyone was up with the lark yesterday morning – including Leo and those who stayed up with him. The Minister and the Taoiseach took morning tea together out on the patio, just in case people were still under the impression that relations are tense between them.

But still, that feeling of two centres of attraction vying for attention persisted.

The talk was of how both men handled questions about whether the Taoiseach had carpeted his Minister for Health and whether he had responded with a contrite apology.

What was noted was the self-deprecating yet defiant manner in which Varadkar dealt with the controversy.

“I don’t mind being slapped down and scolded. I’m a big boy and I’m willing to take a degree of criticism from time to time,” was his reaction when asked about the exchange. While accepting he spoke out of turn when indicating people might expect to get a few euro extra in their pockets, he didn’t back down in his stated determination to get the money he needs to run his department.

Some were saying that the Taoiseach’s public rebuke had backfired on him. If anything, it only served to rally more support for Varadkar. And the fact that Enda felt the need to say anything at all may have pointed to an awareness in his camp that Leo is waiting in the wings should his leadership come into question.

Yet the Minister continues to sound nonplussed at suggestions that he might have his eye on the big prize. His people are at pains to point out that their man is different. He’s just plain-talking Leo, a politician without guile and burning ambition – such a rarity among our public representatives that onlookers are bound to suspect that he is working to a carefully calculated career plan.

Danger in his midst

But Enda is no eejit. He has to be aware of danger in his midst.

As the think-in drew to a close on a high note for him – he was pleased to announce the hot news that Michael Noonan had just won the backing of Europe’s finance ministers for Ireland’s bid to pay back its IMF bailout loans earlier than stipulated. He stressed the election message of recovery. We can now “see the horizon ahead”.

But speaking of objects on the horizon, as soon as the Taoiseach finished his final press conference, attention switched again to Varadkar, who was in huge demand for interviews.

Is this Leo thing all a big media circus? What do his colleagues thing of it?

Many backbenchers quietly expressed their admiration for the way he is going about his business. In particular, they spoke of his address on the health service the day before.

”He talked for about 20 minutes and he was very impressive. He knows his stuff and set out very clearly what he wants to do and how he thinks he can do it. I was very impressed. He’s done his homework,” said one.

The Taoiseach didn’t leave immediately. The party had to vacate the hall by lunchtime as there was a wedding reception scheduled for 2pm. Enda, like a true pro, waited until the bride arrived.

And Leo – well, Leo was lurking too.

Interesting times ahead.