Leo Varadkar’s 2018: Irish politics held prisoner by Brexit

Some in Fianna Fáil believe the longer Varadkar is in office, the more he will be damaged

Leo Varadkar: Health and housing are the running public policy sores for the Government.   Photograph: Tom Honan/PA Wire

Leo Varadkar: Health and housing are the running public policy sores for the Government. Photograph: Tom Honan/PA Wire

 

At the beginning of the year, the prospects for the Government surviving the year seemed slim.

After the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald, relations between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – and personally between Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin – were poor. And Fine Gael, fuelled by a Brexity boost in the opinion polls and revelling in Varadkar’s novelty as a national leader, felt it had nothing to fear from a general election. Were it not for the commitment to hold an abortion referendum, there would probably have been an election in the first half of the year.

By the time “normal” politics emerged months later in the wake of a historic landslide in favour of repeal, Varadkar was already looking towards an election. Easier said than done, however.

Varadkar made a public appeal to Martin to open negotiations on a renewal of the confidence and supply agreement, also telling his Cabinet at a special meeting at Derrynane House, Co Kerry, that he would seek a two-year extension of the deal. The two men met in Killarney, where Martin sweetly informed the Taoiseach that the deal had another budget to run, and afterwards they should review the deal – as its text provided for. Then they could figure out if an extension was warranted.

Varadkar continued to push however, while privately ordering that preparations for an autumn general election be stepped up. His lieutenants briefed widely that an autumn election could be on the cards.

Except that the time had already run out for Varadkar. When the Dáil returned, the Budget process was soon in full swing. Once that was done, Brexit took over. The truth was that Varadkar had already missed the boat for an early election. And even if there was time, he couldn’t viably call an election – right at the time of maximum sensitivity in the Brexit negotiations – and claim it was because he needed stability during the Brexit negotiations. It took him some time to admit that to himself and everyone else.

Strategic strength

As the British position unravelled spectacularly at year’s end, Martin unilaterally declared – after weeks of pretty pointless reviewing of the confidence and supply agreement – that he would give the Taoiseach another year in office, in the national interest, of course.

That he also judged it in Fianna Fáil’s interest was hardly unnoticed. But if Varadkar was outmanoeuvred a little by the Fianna Fáil leader, he has ended up with another year in office. It’s hardly a defeat. And yet Varadkar’s Christmas declaration that a 2019 election might be a goer after all – circumstances can change, he says – suggest that his desire for an election sooner rather than later has not entirely gone away.

If Brexit is settled, even temporarily – something which a British ratification of the withdrawal treaty would achieve, for example – then the prospect of an election will become much more likely.

Nonetheless, the recent process and outcome describes an important feature of the Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil relationship: Martin’s tactical adroitness; Varadkar’s strategic strength. His polling numbers are good, if not as good as many think.

There is a strong view among some in Fianna Fáil that the longer Varadkar is in office, the more he will be damaged and the easier he will be to beat. And there was some evidence for this view in 2018. The launch of an ambitious 20-year capital spending plan was overshadowed by a needless and foreseeable row about the Strategic Communications Unit, a Varadkar creation in the Department of the Taoiseach that was eventually disbanded amid claims of publicly-funded political spinning.

As the recently revealed inflation in the cost of the National Children’s Hospital project demonstrated, controlling the cost of capital (as well as current) spending budgets is now a huge issue for this Government. No doubt there is plenty of blame to go around for that; but it is the Government’s job to manage and stick to its budgets, and Varadkar’s administration seems on recent evidence to be even less capable of that than some of its predecessors.

Careless remarks

Health and housing are the running public policy sores for the Government; neither made much ground during the year.None of Varadkar’s Ministers is described as “embattled” more often than the Minister for Housing, and key political ally, Eoghan Murphy. He did not become any less embattled during 2018, though a decline in photo ops wearing a high-viz vest late in the year was probably wise.

There were misfires aplenty; careless remarks to a lunch in New York suggested sympathy with Donald Trump’s treatment by the media – not a good look for any politician in 2018. He panicked when the CervicalCheck controversy broke, making rash statements about suing the laboratories that he would later regret. He declared Frances Fitzgerald vindicated by the report of the Charleton tribunal but did not reappoint her to Government. He lost independent minister Denis Naughten over an increasingly troubled – and expensive – broadband project.

But while the travails of office will surely take their toll, Varadkar is still something of a man apart in Irish politics. His approval ratings are higher than anyone’s since Bertie Ahern. His party’s poll numbers are high (how robust they are is a more difficult question) and he remains in total control of his party. He has a purring economy at his back.

And he retains an ability to grab the public’s attention. As his tax-cutting pledge at the Fine Gael ardfheis showed, he has an ability to talk directly to the public that is priceless for any campaigning politician. What he wants to say to them remains another matter, about which there is a good deal less certainty. But there is no doubt that Varadkar is central to Fine Gael’s chances of winning an unprecedented third term in office when the next election comes.

At the end of the year, Brexit continues to overshadow all. Varadkar and Simon Coveney have run a hard line on Brexit, securing consistent and strong backing for Ireland’s needs and positions during the Brexit process and negotiations. But his relationships with Theresa May and Arlene Foster are needlessly unproductive.

“Does he really need to say all those things?” asks one internal observer when he repeats some version of his “it’s all the Brits’ fault”. The agreement brokered between the UK and the EU – a consequence, partly, of the Irish requirements – may well be the rock on which May perishes, and with her the prospect for a soft Brexit. The middle ground option of a soft Brexit has receded and the prospect of no Brexit or a no-deal Brexit has risen.

The outcome of that struggle in UK politics will dominate Varadkar’s 2019.

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