Miriam Lord: Over avocado mash in hipster heaven Leo gives taste of things to come
Varadkar speaks of someone important to him who is ‘unconditionally on side’
Lifting the cup(cake): Fine Gael leadership candidate Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohoe serve up coffee and cupcakes on Leo Street in Dublin, as Donohoe announces his support for Varadkar. Photograph: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie
Despite appearances, Leo Avenue is not a one-way street.
At least not yet.
But it’s looking very good for Varadkar.
As he posed for photographs in brilliant sunshine yesterday morning with Paschal Donohoe, who enthusiastically endorsed his candidacy for the Fine Gael leadership, the view from where he stood couldn’t have been any better, with Leo Street to the right of him and Leo Avenue to the left of him.
At a happy juncture.
A mere two days into the two-week Fine Gael leadership contest and Varadkar is sweeping up the public declarations of support from high-profile colleagues. Senior politicians, who would be seen as key influencers within the party, are queuing up to fall in behind his standard.
Big names rolled out in incremental bursts across the airwaves, pledging loyalty to the Minister for Social Protection and heartily recommending him for principal lead in “Fine Gael – The Next Generation”.
“Ireland is a very young country – I mean, the average age in the country is 38, which is what I am.”
The high-octane opening by Team Varadkar has left Simon Coveney’s camp badly winded. By teatime yesterday, Leo had almost twice as many declared votes in the parliamentary party and, crucially, majority support among his Leinster House colleagues.
He officially launches his leadership campaign at noon today in Dublin. Unofficially, it’s been running for months.
He had what might be described as a soft launch yesterday morning. This involved The Unveiling of The Paschal at the special Leo location, some serious schmoozing of the media with free coffee and brand Leo cupcakes and, beforehand, a leisurely breakfast in a Phibsboro coffee house with The Irish Times.
“I’m having the avocado mash,” says Leo.
Now, there’s a surprise.
“That’s why I have an apartment, not a house,” he remarks in a nod to the Australian property mogul who stupidly declared Millennials would be able to afford homes if they didn’t spend so much of their money on toasted luxuries.
One imagines Justin (Trudeau) and Emmanuel (Macron), two politicians Varadkar greatly admires – “I do like their style and I like their substance” – are avocado lads. Not so sure about Enda Kenny, another politician he looks up to.
Brewing up a blueprint
Varadkar is in the Two Boys Brew coffee shop with Donohoe – just two boys brewing up a blueprint for party and government. That’s nearly as clever as heading down the road to Leo Land for the photos.
This is knit-your-own-kimchi hipster heaven. The boys have soft poached eggs, roasted cherry tomatoes, crumbled feta, fresh lime and chilli with their green mash. On sourdough, naturally. With side portions of chorizo.
Hardly the fare of men who eat their dinner in the middle of the day, and as they both know, Enda Kenny’s rout of Richard Bruton’s urban assault on his leadership in 2010 was engineered by Fine Gael’s rural trenchermen.
Different days, reckons Leo. “I think the last time I had avocado toast was with Tony McLoughlin in Strandhill in Sligo. I think, sometimes, we can caricature people in some parts of Ireland a little bit too much.”
And for whom is McLoughlin voting?
“Eh, he’ll tell you that himself.”
A couple of hours later, the veteran backbencher declares for Varadkar.
In the new Ireland, is brunch is the new midday dinner?
As the numbers stack up in his favour, Varadkar knows this contest is his to lose. It won’t be for lack of preparation. He is even working to shake off his natural diffidence and reserve, partly by studying the way Enda Kenny interacts with the public.
“I suppose as this became a real possibility and not just an idea or ambition, in [the last] few months I’ve had to, psychologically, put my feet in Enda Kenny’s shoes and understand the kind of pressures he’s under and decisions he makes. Just thinking, if I was in that seat, if I were in those shoes, how would I handle it.”
An interesting thought.
People say he’s standoffish. He says: “probably I’m a little bit personally shy. I think, in the past, I would have been the kind of person who waited to be introduced.”
But he’s working on it. “I think I’ve changed that approach in the last couple of years. Irish politics is very personal and very tactile and I suppose if I was watching anyone, it would be Enda Kenny, who’s very warm.”
Then he wallops me in the back, Kenny style. Had I been eating the beetroot falafel with pomegranate, mint bulgur, garlic kale, caramelised onion hummus, pickled cucumber and dukkah, I would have coughed it up.
No. If he becomes taoiseach, he won’t be emulating Enda’s friendly thumps.
He’s expecting a special guest at todays big launch. “All things going to plan, a political person who’s yet to publicly state their preference.” He got the confirmation an hour earlier.
Like Simon, Leo backed the wrong political horse in the last leadership contest. “In 2010, people did wrap their arm around me and say, ‘you might have been on the other side but it’s not all over.’”
The heave against Enda was difficult. “A lot of people felt very wounded after that for a long time after, on both sides . . . I think what Enda did was very wise; he moved to reunite the party and I certainly learned from that.”
While he’ll be centre of attention in Dublin, Leo really wants to be in London where Susannah, his niece and god-daughter, is making her first communion. “I feel very bad because I’m very close to my family. I live very near to my parents, everyone will be in London and I won’t be there, unfortunately. But I’ll make it up to her.”
Varadkar doesn’t like talking about his personal life. At all. He stammers through his replies, far more comfortable discussing politics.
Around Leinster House, we’ve heard the whispering about supposed mutterings by some grassroots about the desirability of a gay Taoiseach. Has he?
“Really? I hope not. People know about my personal life, it’s not a secret anymore. I don’t think it’s particularly relevant. I obviously have a family I’m very close to and a partner of almost two years now. I don’t like my job or my politics to intrude on their lives.”
But there was that brief kerfuffle over newspaper photographs of guests at a recent wedding. Simon was featured with his wife, along with another shot of him with his children, and Leo was pictured alone.
Did he think they were sending out a message about his sexuality and relationship status?
“I didn’t initially. I remember seeing the two photographs on the front page of the Sunday Independent and a lot of people texted me and remarked on it and felt there was something more to it. I didn’t really, to be honest, because I did arrive at the wedding on my own. I didn’t get a plus-one invitation at the time.”
His “plus one” is Matthew, a surgeon.
“Yeah, he’s a great guy. I suppose like anybody who is important to you, they bring a degree of stability to your life and, you know, maybe when things aren’t going well in work or in politics, there’s always somebody who is unconditionally on your side and also somebody who can tell you hard things you need to hear. But again, he has his career and I have mine.”
It was Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s ambassador to France, who arranged his meeting with the new French president. Leo is a fan.
“I definitely look at what other politicians do. I don’t think you should ever imitate another politician but, you know, I do see a new generation of leaders around the world, people like Macron, like Justin Trudeau in Canada. I do like their style and I like their substance as well – they’re actually pushing back against some of the forces that want to close the world down again . . . instead of pandering to populist or extremist views on the right or left, they’ve done the opposite.”
More coffee (a blend from Guatemala and Rwanda) is ordered.
“I find it quite interesting that when people talk about ideology, how, often, even now, a lot of the talk in the media is sort of about: are you right or left or Thatcherite versus social democrat? Actually, I don’t think that’s the politics of the 21st century at all. Those are the debates of the ’80s and they’re largely settled. The politics of the future is different, It’s the division, I think, as Blair and others have identified, of progressive versus regressive and open versus closed.”
Paschal chimes in. “That’s one of the reasons I’m supporting Leo. Because he recognises all of this.”
Not a politics nerd
The candidate insists he isn’t a politics nerd. He makes sure to take one night off a week to go to the cinema or a restaurant. He doesn’t think he’ll get to Electric Picnic this year. Oh, and there’s the gym. He was there before breakfast.
Varadkar has trimmed down considerably and is pretty pleased with himself. How much has he lost?
“From peak to trough? Oooh, about 25 kilos.” Like he has to think about it.
There’s a picture of him on the Irish Times website which shows him when he was chunkier.
“I’ve seen it!”whoops Pascal.
“Is it terrible?”
“All I’m saying is there was a difference in you, Leo. That’s all I’ll say.”
He looks concerned.
Leo Varadkar is not counting his chickens. There’s many a slip ’twixt cup and lip. But he’s confident now.
“I think I will win. But I’ve been around politics long enough to know you don’t take anything for granted.”
And those Kenny shoes? A good fit?
“That remains to be seen.”