Leo Varadkar looks unassailable in Fine Gael leadership race
Bottom line for many parliamentary party members is which face on the election poster is most likely to save their seats
The outcome of the Fine Gael leadership contest increasingly looks like a foregone conclusion with Leo Varadkar racing into an apparently unassailable lead among members of the parliamentary party. He has been preparing for this contest for a long time and was able to put a comprehensive battle plan into operation from the moment Enda Kenny announced his decision to step down last Wednesday afternoon.
The result of the Fine Gael race is not simply a significant milestone for the party but an important event for the State because the new leader will be elected taoiseach early next month, barring some political calamity.
On the positive side, Varadkar’s ability to all but kill off the contest before it got going shows that he is a political operator of the first order. That is one of the qualities required in a taoiseach. However, the problem about its one-sided nature is that the prospect of a real debate about the State’s future now seems unlikely. That might have revealed which of the candidates had the vision and not simply the political skills required to lead in the difficult years ahead.
Assuming he becomes taoiseach, Varadkar will find it hard to match the work rate of his predecessor. But the nature of the challenge will be different. Enda Kenny’s overriding task was to ensure that the Government he led dragged the State back from the brink of economic disaster. The task facing his successor is to provide some much-needed inspirational leadership.
Convincing the majority of the population to back the kind of prudent policies required to sustain economic recovery and resist the temptation of popular soft options will be the real test. Varadkar’s acknowledgment yesterday of the overriding importance of ensuring the State does not return to the path of reckless public spending was a welcome sign of his political maturity.
One of the main reasons for the surge of support in his favour over the past two days was that most of his parliamentary colleagues regard him as a better media performer than rival Simon Coveney. Success will require him to demonstrate he has the resolve to devote every waking moment to the job. The tightening budgetary situation and Brexit will mean the new taoiseach does not get much of a political honeymoon.
At 38 Varadkar would be the youngest taoiseach in the history of the State assuming, of course, that the Dáil ratifies the decision of the Fine Gael party. As the openly gay son of an immigrant, his election would represent a break with the past and probably make headlines around the world.
He has benefited from his image as a young, vibrant politician who offers the prospect of reinforcing the State’s new-found reputation as a progressive, modern country. His rush to Paris to associate himself with the victory of Emmanuel Macron tied neatly into his campaign strategy.
With other youthful leaders like Justin Trudeau coming to the fore in Canada, it appears that Ireland is in the vanguard of a generational change in politics. The bottom line for the majority of the Fine Gael parliamentary party members is which face on the poster is most likely to save their seats at the next election. It is to be hoped that their decision about what is best for the party will also be best for the State.