Leo Varadkar: The man who evolved into a taoiseach

For a decade, the young politician avoided pitfalls that might have ended a bright career

In Dublin West 10 years ago, Leo Varadkar, then trying to win a seat in a tightly fought constituency, distributed hundreds of Lion bars, emblazoned with the slogan "Vote No 1 Leo the Lion".

A decade later, the 38-year-old Varadkar is now the new leader of Fine Gael, poised to become Ireland's next and youngest-ever taoiseach – assuming he can agree terms with Independents and Fianna Fáil.

It is a remarkable story by any measure, but the man who won a Dáil seat a decade ago is markedly different to the man who now leads Ireland’s largest political party.

Back then, Varadkar was an unashamedly right-wing politician – feisty, fearless and relentlessly ambitious. Today he has toned down those right-wing tendencies.

However, the leadership hustings and his declaration that he would be a leader for those who get out of bed early in the morning have given rise to fears that his conservative ideology may be asserting itself again.

Varadkar’s decision to tone down his feistiness and fearlessness, replacing it with a more considered and media-managed figure, was a calculated but necessary move for a man who would be taoiseach.

Nevertheless, he has managed to retain many of the benefits of being seen as a blunt, straight-talking maverick who shoots from the hip and calls it as he sees it, but perhaps without a slew of freshly minted, damaging quotes.

However the reality of Varadkar the Man is that of someone who is shy and socially nervous, but yet self-assured. By his own admission, he let his personal life take a back seat as he sought to climb in the political world.

Medical student

He was a 20-year-old medical student in Trinity College when he first ran for Fine Gael in the 1999 local elections in Mulhuddart, earning just 360 first-preferences and dismissal on the ninth count.

However, he continued to devote his energy to Young Fine Gael in the aftermath of that electoral drubbing, becoming one of the leaders of the campaign that pushed for changes to the way Fine Gael elected its leaders.

In 2003, he inherited the seat of Senator Sheila Terry on Fingal County Council after she was forced to vacate it under the dual mandate rules barring Oireachtas members from sitting on councils.

The following year he retained his seat in the local elections, securing the biggest vote in the entire country. In the 2007 general election, Varadkar was elected a TD.

Usually, newly elected TDs stay quiet for a while, but Varadkar came to national prominence when he lashed out in the Dáil chamber at Fianna Fáil's Bertie Ahern. Sitting alongside Enda Kenny and James Reilly, Varadkar accused the then taoiseach of being devious and cunning and one who would leave behind a tarnished legacy.

Ahern responded: "When you hear a new deputy who isn't a wet day in the place not alone castigating me, but castigating Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, I wish him well. I'd say he'd get an early exit."

Maiden speech

However his excoriation of Ahern was not his first contribution in the Dáil. His maiden speech was to congratulate Mary Harney on her reappointment as minister for health. Then, he encouraged her to introduce a system of universal health insurance. Nine years later, Varadkar would occupy the same office and abandon the very same policy.

That illustrated how Varadkar has been prepared to soften the edges of his personal policies for the sake of gaining and retaining power. He would call it an evolution of his beliefs, rather than an abandonment.

It is a sign the 38-year-old Varadkar is not the same ideologue as the 28-year-old young gun.

As a freshly elected TD, it was he who proposed paying jobless migrants to leave the country. He also questioned whether prisoners should pay for their own food and accommodation. Both initiatives were angrily rejected by his Fine Gael colleagues.

Today Varadkar speaks of a new social contract and equality of opportunity.

One of his first challenges will be to heal a divided party, slightly bruised by a sometimes hostile election campaign.

Some bridges will need to be rebuilt and trust earned from some sectors of the party. For nearly three years, everything Varadkar has done has been tinted by the possibility of one day being taoiseach including his defence of the Garda whistleblowers in 2014 forcing the ultimate departure of Garda commissioner Martin Callinan.

It was an unprecedented move from the party of law and order but it was vindicated. Varadkar’s political instincts could tell him which way the wind was blowing.

Coming out

Meanwhile, his decision to come out as a gay man five months before Ireland voted Yes in the marriage equality referendum enhanced his appeal to the wider public, given that he was the first Irish minister to do so.

His meteoric rise is partly the result of avoiding contentious decisions in favour of popular rhetoric. His stint as minister for health was unremarkable for that very reason.

That tendency to be guarded cannot serve him in the office of taoiseach where tough decisions are required and enemies are inevitable.

In a profile in the aftermath of the 2007 general election,Varadkar was described in The Irish Times as a man in a hurry who risked a Michael McDowell-style collapse if he did not pick his battles carefully.

The author feared Varadkar would build up too big a profile and turn off the public in the process.

Varadkar has heeded such advice, acutely aware that many young know-it-all politicians in Fine Gael had “fizzled brightly before expiring quickly”.

He has picked his battles wisely and shown remarkable political instinct at critical junctures. His political journey has taken him from the opposition backbenches to the taoiseach’s doorstep in just under a decade.

On June 14th, 2007, Leo Eric Varadkar took his seat in the Dáil chamber for the first time. Ten years later to the very day, he will serve his first full day as Ireland's most powerful man.