Fine Gael chooses Varadkar’s tradition-shattering profile
Bulk of support came from elected members whose seats depend on attracting disillusioned voters
The election of Leo Varadkar as leader of Fine Gael does not represent a change in political direction, more a change in emphasis and the need to offer something different if the party is to forestall the growth of Fianna Fáil. The bulk of Varadkar’s support came from councillors and Oireachtas members who risked losing their seats if the party failed to attract disillusioned voters. But a large majority of party members favoured Simon Coveney, reflecting a divide that could fuel future conflict.
Assessments of support within the party showed Varadkar to be popular with younger members while Coveney attracted an older vote. Both men represented generational change, as Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan stepped aside, while offering slightly different values.
Varadkar was hard-edged on economic issues while his opponent embraced the “Just Society” and the need for an inclusive social approach. Behind the rhetoric was the party’s need to respond to dramatic cultural and population shifts. For elected members, Varadkar provided the necessary tradition-shattering profile. A gay man and son of an Indian immigrant father, they believed his intelligence, drive and grasp of modern political stagecraft would revive the party’s fortunes.
Time is not on Varadkar’s side. Elected leader of a diminished party, he has to consolidate his position as taoiseach. That will require dealing with the concerns of Independent Ministers who support the minority Government and reaffirming the terms of a “confidence and supply” arrangement with Fianna Fáil. The first task may be easy but the latter is hedged around with difficulties because of its likely impact on the timing and outcome of a general election. Micheál Martin and Varadkar will be seeking political commitments and space to manoeuvre.
A recovery in support for Fine Gael, because of media attention during the long, drawn-out leadership race, will not have been lost on Fianna Fáil. The party had edged ahead of Fine Gael in opinion polls at the end of last year, but is now trailing the Government party. The prospect of a new and ambitious taoiseach extending that recovery will embolden supporters of Martin to demand a more forceful Dáil approach in operating the “confidence and supply” agreement. For his part, Varadkar has indicated a determination to hang tough with Fianna Fáil on such matters. To a large extent, this amounts to coat-trailing. Neither leader is likely to precipitate an election if the opinion polls point to a hung Dáil.
Fianna Fáil has offered conditional support for three budgets. If that arrangement stands, an election – in spite of fevered speculation – may not happen for two years. The likelihood, however, is that Varadkar will have much less time to show things can be done better in a changing society.