Fine Gael leadership race: Leo Varadkar

Often seen as guarded, Varadkar is much liked by the electorate and very ambitious

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar: a career politician, whose drive and determination come with personal sacrifice. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar: a career politician, whose drive and determination come with personal sacrifice. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Fifteen years ago, a 23-year-old Leo Varadkar wrote to The Irish Times proposing a new system for electing the leader of Fine Gael.

He, and the co-signator Lucinda Creighton, were “shocked, appalled and betrayed” that Michael Noonan’s successor (Enda Kenny) was to be appointed without the consultation of party members and councillors.

The “rump” 31 TDs and the “14 unelectables from the fag-end of a Senate” were making the decision for the “loyal Fine Gael membership and the 400,000 or so electors who voted for them”, the pair wrote in 2002.

Two years later, a proposal by Varadkar and Creighton was ratified by the party’s ardfheis. It altered the voting system significantly to allow ordinary members and local councillors to have a vote in the contest.

Now, Varadkar is at the mercy of a voting system he helped to create.

That was not Varadkar’s first (or last) letter to The Irish Times. His first correspondence was in 1997, when he was a perky 18 year old, and he used the opportunity to lambast the restructuring of government departments and the poor journalism which had not put them under further scrutiny.

This was an early sign of the impatient and unrelenting ambition of Varadkar. In the privileged setting of King’s Hospital boarding school in Palmerstown, he joined Young Fine Gael.

As a 20-year-old medical student in Trinity, he found time to run for the party in the 1999 local elections in Mulhuddart. He bombed but continued on his political path regardless.

He inherited senator Sheila Terry’s seat in Fingal County Council in October 2003 after she was forced to vacate it under the dual-mandate system. His rise within Fine Gael since has been nothing short of meteoric.

He is a career politician, whose drive and determination came with huge personal sacrifice.

It has, however, led him on the path to potentially becoming the youngest-ever taoiseach.

Public attention

It is a position many within Fine Gael believe is made for Varadkar, a 24/7 politician who commands public attention.

For many within the party their predicament is simple – it is Varadkar’s face on posters that, they believe, will secure them more votes.

There are some, however, that fear the Dublin West TD because the truth is few people know the real Leo Varadkar.

The 38-year-old remains an enigma to some of his closest allies and colleagues. As a politician, they know he is shrewd, ambitious and smart. They are also aware every public utterance Varadkar makes is perfectly prepared and scripted for his audience.

However only a small handful within Leinster House know the man outside of politics. One of his ministerial colleagues, a supporter, says the Varadkar they knew in 2007 is remarkably different to the man today.

Yet he still describes the Fine Gael TD as a guarded, private individual whose shyness is often mistaken as social awkwardness.

That is a criticism Varadkar has struggled to shake. His demeanour often gives rise to a perception that he is disinterested.

Throughout the Government negotiations, Independent TDs cited Varadkar as a difficulty. Many of them felt Varadkar preferred a second election over doing business with nuisance Independents.

The Dublin West TD has worked hard to shake the perception of social awkwardness over recent months, travelling to international soccer games with colleagues, meeting individual members for beers and pizza, and doing his best to engage in small talk.

Affable nature

It is these characteristics that place him in direct contrast to the man he is attempting to succeed. Kenny works a room like few others, insistent on shaking the hand (or punching the arm) of every person present.

Despite his affable nature, there is huge public resistance to Enda Kenny. Quite the opposite is the case for Varadkar.

One former Labour TD recalls a story about canvassing in the 2016 general election. It had been a particularly bitter campaign for his party meeting hostility at most doors. His constituency was an urban yet economically deprived area.

“One thing that always sticks out for me was the ‘Leo’ factor. You listened to 10 minutes of abuse about Labour and the Government. Then they would ask ‘What is that Leo Varadkar like? I like him’.”

Nobody can really explain it. He has served in two departments – the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and subsequently the Department of Health.

The first would not have earned him public attention and the latter had destroyed the career of many of his predecessors.Yet Varadkar seemed to retain the support of the general public despite the many controversies that dominated his tenure.

Two key moments pinpoint Varadkar’s appeal to the wider public. The first occurred in March 2014 when he called two Garda whistleblowers distinguished. Sgts Maurice McCabe and John Wilson had been described by the former Garda commissioner Martin Callinan as disgusting. Varadkar’s intervention was the beginning of the end for Callinan.

Social change

The Dublin West TD’s decision in 2015 to come out as a gay man made headlines across the world. It also endeared him to a new generation of voters, desperate for social change in Ireland. It made him somewhat of a celebrity.

Varadkar has been seeing Matthew Barrett, a doctor in the Mater hospital, for over 18 months. It helps that his name is distinctive, owed to his Indian-born father. Dr Ashok Varadkar met his wife, Miriam, a nurse from Waterford, when both were immigrants working in England. The family moved to Dublin, where Leo was born, in the mid-1970s.

From 2014 onwards, Varadkar has been seen in the leadership light. Everything from there was viewed through this prism.

His every action created a deep suspicion within the party about his motives. Given that he was burned by his role in the 2010 heave, however, it was always unlikely he would move against the Taoiseach.

Varadkar was on the losing side then. He threw his weight behind Richard Bruton. Indeed, the description of Varadkar standing in the lobby of Leinster House with tears streaming down his face became the defining image of the failed heave.

Many believed Kenny placed him in the health portfolio as an attempt to dampen his ambitious spirit. Varadkar had seemed a perfect fit for the role having trained as a GP and a doctor.

His family also have deep roots in medicine. His father, Ashok, opened a doctor’s practice, at first in the family home in Castleknock. Dr Varadkar was also the family GP for the McAleese family during their time in Áras an Uachtaráin. Leo’s sister, Sophia, is a doctor in the neurology department of Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in London, while Sonia is a nurse at the Coombe Hospital in Dublin.

During his time in health, he managed to earn continuing goodwill by being frank and energetic, and by downplaying his ambitions relative to James Reilly’s often grandiose plans.

Failure to reform

However he was often accused of being a commentator rather than a minister, failing to deliver radical reform.

It was during his brief tenure that Fine Gael effectively dropped plans to introduce universal health insurance. It had been a key party policy, abandoned in time for the 2016 election.

One of his staunch critics within his own party maintains Varadkar could not get out of the department fast enough.

Now he serves as Minister for Social Protection, a role many believed was a demotion. However, it gave him the space and time to prepare for this period, a luxury his nearest rival did not have in the Department of Housing.

The development of his policies during the leadership contest will be key. Varadkar has a finely honed radar for populist causes.

His policies are economically liberal. He believes in personal responsibility, rather than State intervention.

There are those who believe Varadkar only wants to be Taoiseach and is not prepared to be leader of the Opposition. They believe he wants the glory but not the graft.

There are others who insist he is the solution to all Fine Gael’s woes. However as Varadkar himself wrote in 2002: “Fine Gael should not seek a Messiah to lead it out of its difficulties. There is none and never will be.”