High-flying Leo Varadkar has won nothing yet
Interview: Taoiseach will not call election but reiterates desire for stability around Brexit talks
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: “We have limited room for manoeuvre and for big announcements on budget day.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Leo Varadkar, 39 and Taoiseach, flying high in opinion polls, his Government buoyed by a purring economy, has had a pretty good run of it since he became the youngest Taoiseach ever last year.
But if he was a football manager – or a star player, even – they would say: he has won nothing yet. In the next few months he will face the resolution of two issues that will define at least this phase of his political career.
The business end of Brexit will demand decisions and judgments, some of them perhaps made in the small hours of a European summit, that will have far-reaching consequences for himself, his Government and the country.
The question of how and when the Government he inherited comes to an end must also be faced.
It’s that second question that is uppermost in the minds of the Fine Gael TDs and Senators who meet in Galway today for the parliamentary party’s autumn think-in. Above everything else, they want to know if there’s going to be an election. What will he tell them?
“I think political parties should always be prepared for elections,” Varadkar says. “They don’t always happen when you plan them or when you want them. And it is the case that Fianna Fáil can end the agreement at any time.”
However, Varadkar is clear that he will not be sending his TDs over the top immediately. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has – as Varadkar knew he would – rebuffed his approaches for an early renewal of the confidence-and-supply agreement. The question was always what the Taoiseach would do then. The answer seems to be: nothing, for now. “I’m not going to call an election,” he says.
He rehearses the arguments for an early renewal of the confidence-and-supply agreement one more time.
“I don’t want to be in a situation where I don’t know how long the Government is going to last, where I don’t know whether the Government will last more than a few weeks after the budget is passed, or more than a day after the Finance Bill is passed,” he says.
“I think that’s not in the interests of the country, I think it weakens our position when it comes to the Brexit talks.
“When you attend meetings in Brussels, one thing anybody wonders is: ‘What’s the longevity of that prime minister?’ You know, we all know, for example, there are elections coming up in Sweden, we all know there are elections coming up in Luxembourg. People inevitably want to know is this the person you’re going to be dealing with in six months’ time or nine months’ time – so I think it puts us in a weaker position when we don’t have certainty around that.
“And then also when it comes to negotiating contracts, when it comes to trying to negotiate agreements with interest groups and so on, I think the Government is in a much better position to deliver for the taxpayer if people know that that government is going to be around and be able to honour those deals.”
This is thin enough reasoning. All governments are bound by the agreements made by their predecessors. The state has an eternal legal personality. Of course a new government can change the policy of an old one. But it can’t tear up legal agreements without legal consequences. The government does not have a legal personality; the state does, and it is a perpetual one.
In the European Union, governments change all the time; prime ministers come and go. But national interests remain. Varadkar likes the high politics of European summits, and he may well be good at it. But he may also be overestimating the importance of the personal chemistry around the table with the other heads of government. Leadership matters; of course it does. But other things matter too, such as a country’s permanent interests. And anyway, whatever criticisms Martin has of Varadkar’s handling of Brexit, his policy would be little different.
Either way, Martin seems likely to simply wait Varadkar out. He isn’t going to start negotiations until after the budget, and the landscape for, and range of potential outcomes of, those talks will be defined by the resolution of the Brexit talks. Is there an agreement or isn’t there? Is the prognosis catastrophic, or merely bad?
Varadkar repeats again and again that he wants to settle the future of the Government (in his favour, naturally) now. “But ultimately, if Fianna Fáil isn’t willing to do that, they’re not.”
Negotiations have begun between the two parties though – yesterday – on the budget. The room for manoeuvre is slim enough, though – not because the budget is not expansionary (it is) but because much of the available increase in spending has already been committed, in capital spending pledges, in the costs of demographic changes, in public sector pay rises.
“We did that eyes open,” Varadkar says, “knowing full well that budgets would be less dramatic than they had been in previous years. But I think it’s what you actually need.
“We have limited room for manoeuvre and for big announcements on budget day – roughly €800 million, and the vast majority of that will be taken up by the welfare package and the tax package.
“But I really think that’s the way we need to go into the future – these massive, dramatic budgets where there are big announcements on budget day . . . is not actually the way to solve the problems that we have in health and housing. Actually what we need is long-term planning and consistent investment.”
Housing, the single greatest area of political attack on the Government, will be a particular focus. But against the political need for “something to be done” is Varadkar’s belief that there “aren’t any overnight solutions”.
The long-term planning and incremental progress that he lauds has an uncomfortable corollary for politicians: problems will be fixed slowly. And with the numbers of people in emergency accommodation heading inexorably for 10,000 the demand for solutions is going to get louder. But Varadkar is keen to come to the defence of his Minister for Housing – and key political ally – Eoghan Murphy.
Ultimately the responsibility for providing social housing actually lies with local authorities – that’s why we call them council houses
People focusing on Murphy personally “on how he looks or how he speaks or what he wears . . . are really not people who care about people who are homeless or care about housing. They are just people who are trying to score political points or gain political advantage,” Varadkar says.
Rather than focusing on the person of the Minister, he says, they should look at the “role of local authorities”.
“Ultimately the responsibility for providing social housing actually lies with local authorities – that’s why we call them council houses. That’s why we call them council estates. At the very least it’s a shared responsibility between central government and local authorities. And if you look at some of the local authorities where the housing shortage is at its worst, they’re local authorities like Dublin City Council and South Dublin County Council – on which Sinn Féin is the largest party and left-wing groups dominate.”
If the council wants to spend more money in housing, it can divert money from other areas, he says, or it can increase commercial rates, or raise the property tax. “It’s a tough decision to make, but they can make it.”
On Brexit, Varadkar seeks to play his part in what EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier calls “de-dramatising” the issue of the Border backstop, the contentious guarantee that there will be no hard border, even if the EU and the UK fail to agree a trade deal.
But does he accept any responsibility for dramatising it in the first place?
“No, is the short answer.”
“We do need to have a backstop. We need to make sure that it avoids a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. But I think it can be de-dramatised in two ways. I think we should totally move away from any sort of language about there being a border in the Irish Sea – that is not what is intended, sought or asked for by the Irish Government. ”
There are checks, he says, that occur already – “between Northern Ireland and Ireland around diesel, and excise, and tax, for example. There are checks that occur between Britain and Northern Ireland around agriculture and phytosanitary and so on . . . It’s not an attempt to create some sort of new political border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – that’s not what we were ever looking for.”
He has, he says, been trying to agree a date for a meeting with Arlene Foster – “but we haven’t been able to agree a date”. There seems little urgency on either side. He hasn’t spoken to Foster “for a couple of months”.
He does say that he thinks it is becoming “increasingly evident that a hard Brexit might actually undermine the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. I think more and more unionists are perhaps starting to come around to that view. But it’s not for me tell them their own business.”
“The best thing we can do to get things back on track in Northern Ireland is to have greater clarity on what Brexit is going to look like,” Varadkar says. “I think that is going to be the focus for the next couple of weeks.”