During his first stint as taoiseach, Leo Varadkar quickly found himself as the Brexiteers’ public enemy number one. His ability to upset the right of the Conservative Party couldn’t be outstripped by even the most intransigent European bureaucrat. And, in turn, he was dismissed as naive, arrogant, a patsy of Brussels, the barrier between Britain and its sunny destiny outside of the European Union.
Where the party had been full of fondness – at least tolerance – for his predecessor Enda Kenny, they had nothing but contempt for Varadkar. In 2020 the European Union’s budget negotiations saw Ireland asked to increase its monetary contributions to the bloc, while subsidies for Irish farmers were cut. The delight some ideologues took in this typified the Varadkar resentment. In spite of Ireland’s so-called slavish loyalty to the EU, it had been led astray, its faith in the project was misplaced. And everything wrong with Varadkar was laid bare: he was foolish and needy at the same time.
Thankfully things have calmed down a lot since. Brexit is still unresolved and remains a fairly big headache for the British government. If anyone had an answer to the protocol quagmire then it would have been straightened out before now. But parliament is no longer in a constant state of mutiny. The pandemic and then Ukraine bumped Brexit down the list of psychological priorities. The Irish premier does not suffer routine public castigation any more. The heat has dissipated, relations are not ideal but they are better.
The question, then, is whether Varadkar’s return to office on Saturday will reignite the animus. Was all of this a straightforward dislike of Varadkar – his political style, personal affectations, his ability to upset long-held beliefs about the stereotypical Irishman? Or was it, rather, what Varadkar represented? The realisation among Brexiteers that perhaps they had misunderstood how difficult it would be to leave the bloc; that unilateral negotiation wasn’t an option; that a “clean” Brexit was not so much a difficulty but in fact a mere fantasy; that as they embarked on their spiritual journey someone had to make sense of the details? Maybe it was just circumstance that turned Varadkar into a bogeyman.
[ As Varadkar prepares for another stint as Taoiseach, the pressure is on FG leader to deliver ]
Perhaps. Since Varadkar left office, Britain has undergone a significant vibe shift. He may face lingering resentment. But the energy has moved on from Brexit – its advocates have won their ideological project, few can find it in them to become animated over the small print of the protocol (that is for someone else to figure out), Britain’s rightful independence has been declared and defended. There is plenty more to be anxious about in Britain than Varadkar and EU bureaucrats. Facing a bleak winter of strikes, the nation looks inward.
The Conservative Party is bifurcated. Perhaps as divided as it was at the height of the May-era. But the interests of the groups are different now. The low-tax populists of the Johnson tradition face off with the technocratic self-appointed “grown-ups in the room”. If Varadkar were to belong to either political style – though it will never be a perfect match – it would certainly be the latter. And lucky for him they’re currently the ones in charge: Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt.
The problem for Varadkar with Theresa May was that she could not control her party. With Boris Johnson it was his proclivity to use rhetorical bombast to distract from lack of substance, to whip up Brexiteers’ emotions, to remind them what they were fighting for, to remind them that something was getting in their way. Rishi Sunak may be a true Brexit believer at heart, but he is understated. It is not in his nature to encourage a storm. His base – remarkably – is at the centre of the party.
So it seems, as things stand, there is every reason to believe the Anglo-Irish relationship will not sink below the recent nadir. There is a reasonable if optimistic case that a semblance of healthy diplomacy will remain. The Brexiteers are still hostile by nature, but the nation’s priorities are simply elsewhere. Sunak and Varadkar are politicians of the same school, more inclined to get along than the oil and water combination of Varadkar and Johnson. Time might actually heal all wounds.
But Sunak is not impervious. The protocol still needs resolving. Pretending Northern Ireland is not there does not make the problem go away. Until the DUP realises it will have to face the consequences of a close flirtation with the hardest of Brexiteers, the impasse remains. And Sunak is currently presiding over a country suffering the aftershocks of a poorly handled exit from the European Union. He could become another casualty of the project. Its proponents in the Conservative Party may have their sights on something else at the moment, but they are no less aggressive and bloodthirsty for that.
So the fate of the relationship is uncertain. Of far greater concern to Rishi Sunak should be that he is at the mercy of his own MPs, whose thirst for upheaval can’t seem to be sated.