Leo Varadkar: ‘FG should be a warm house for social conservatives’

Leadership candidate on his ‘right-wing’ image, abortion and Coveney’s values

Harry McGee meets the hot favourite to become next Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and asks him about the pressures of the job, building bridges with Simon Coveney and his plans for the first 100 days. Video: Enda O'Dowd


Leo Varadkar is on the run. Criss-crossing the country, meeting the electorate, pressing his case, making his pitch.

On Sunday night he was in Cork, at the final hustings debate, delivering a combative performance that surprised even his closest aides, who had advised a cautious approach in his opponent’s backyard.

Afterwards he was driven to Co Mayo and rose the next morning in Westport. Perpetual motion is the natural state of the candidate.

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On Monday night he was back in Dublin to meet voters at the Red Cow Inn, the polling station for the several Dublin constituencies. The interview is hastily arranged and time-limited: he needs to be in Blanchardstown by 10pm.

The campaign must be exhausting, but he seems pretty fresh. It helps when you’re the front runner, but it doesn’t make you any less nervous. If he thinks victory is inevitable, he makes hardly any linguistic concessions to it. Everything is “If I win”. He seems less restless, more disciplined than before. And focused. “I need five minutes before we start,” he says. “Mindfulness.”

His press secretary shrugs as we withdraw. “It’s his new thing.”

Right wing?

His opponent has sought to portray him as right wing. Is he?

“My difficulty with the whole right-left construct is that I don’t think it describes modern politics, or the modern choices that people face in the world,” he says. “But I don’t want to be running away from a label. If I was to describe myself in terms of a political philosophy, I’d cast myself as a social and economic liberal, which is typically what people describe as being left-of-centre on social issues and right-of-centre on economic issues.

“It’s not that I’m afraid to be tagged with the label of right-wing, or even centre-right, I just don’t believe it properly describes either the choice that we face politically, or what I’m trying to say.”

I would favour a change that allows us to permit terminations in certain circumstances but not on request up to 12 weeks, as the Citizens’ Assembly has proposed

But the labels do mean things, don’t they? They’re not empty.

“Look, I meet people all the time who say that they’re a bit to the left on this or a bit to the right on that,” he says, settling into his stride. “What I would like to build is a new centre, a wider, broader centre, which would encompass a lot of different philosophies – you know, the philosophy that I’m putting forward that is a market liberal philosophy and a socially liberal philosophy, but would have room in it for a broader church than that.

“And I’ve said in my speeches that Fine Gael should be a warm house for people who have socially conservative views.”

Code for abortion, of course. His own view has changed over the years, and he now favours a limited liberalisation of the law.

“My personal view is that I would favour a change that allows us to permit terminations of pregnancy in certain circumstances but not on request up to 12 weeks, which is what the Citizens’ Assembly has proposed,” he says.

“But I don’t necessarily think – in fact I don’t think at all – that my personal views on this issue should determine party policy or public policy.”

The Government will have to legislate for the question to be asked, but what that question will be – the version favoured by the Citizens’ Assembly or something more palatable to the average Fine Gaeler – has yet to be decided.

“There’ll have to be two things: there’ll have to be a question and there’ll have to be legislation.”

Will the legislation be published beforehand?

“I think it would be extremely unwise not to. That would certainly be my view and my advice to the next government, no matter what role I have.”

Not so polite

The contest between Varadkar and Coveney has not been as polite as it has sometimes seemed. Asked about the policy differences between himself and his opponent, he answers:

“I can’t answer that question,” he says. “I haven’t really seen his policies.”

Fine Gael leadership candidates Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney on the hustings. Photograph: Alan Betson
I’m not sure what values Minister Coveney is putting across. The only value seems to be that we should try to be kind to everyone

Pressed on Coveney’s values (he has spoken about the “just society” and grounded his campaign in its values), Varadkar is dismissive.

“I’m not sure what values Minister Coveney is putting across. The only value seems to be that we should try to be kind to everyone. And that’s not what I mean by political values. When I talk about political values I mean the things that actually are Fine Gael’s political values – like equality of opportunity, and like enterprise and reward. These aren’t things I’ve invented, these are in our Constitution. And I want to add to them – things like a commitment to Europe, personal liberty, the environment and compassion.”

Would Fine Gael policies be very different under him to Coveney?

“Probably not. I do think there would be a different approach, though.”

He adds: “I think there will be an effort to push forward our ideas and maybe not compromise as much or as quickly.”

With Fianna Fáil?

“In general.”

He will, he says, ask Micheál Martin to continue with the confidence-and-supply agreement. But he will also propose new policies, Fine Gael policies, that he will seek the support of Fianna Fáil and the Independents to implement, citing reforms of social insurance in particular – “rather than parking them because they’re controversial”.

Reforms of social insurance might be controversial, as they would change the system to mean that those who pay more into social insurance get more out – so that a higher earner who became unemployed would get higher welfare payments than a person on low wages. This is the basis for several continental systems, but you can guess how it might be portrayed here.

“That’s not one of the ones I’d propose to do upfront – it’s very expensive. The ones we’d be pushing up front [are] better parental leave, expansion of treatment benefits and sick pay. And another one would be the pension reforms. But I am in favour of it.”

The Fianna Fáil question

I’ll be very upfront with Micheál Martin. I’m very happy with the idea of there being good faith and no surprises

Would his relationship with Micheál Martin be his biggest challenge?

“The approach that I would adopt with Micheál Martin is the approach I adopt with everyone, and some people respect it and some people don’t like it, but I hope Micheál Martin will like it – I’ll be very upfront with him. I’m very happy with the idea of there being good faith and no surprises.”

Did he refuse to serve as minister for health, as recent reports suggested?

“It’s hard to answer this question because it means me having to divulge a private conversation I had with the Taoiseach . . . The only way I can correct an inaccurate story is by betraying the confidence of the Taoiseach and I’m not willing to do that.”