Leo Varadkar must adapt to succeed
If the new Taoiseach wishes to retain the sense that a new start is being made, he will need to create and sustain new ideas and approaches
Fine Gael Leader Leo Varadkar, who is set to become the youngest taoiseach in the history of the State. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
To become head of government at 38 is a tremendous achievement. Yet Leo Varadkar knows as well as anyone that to become taoiseach is to reach a summit only to begin an even steeper climb. He is entitled to spend a day or so enjoying the view from the top, but the hard slog is just beginning. A sluggish, directionless government must be infused with the sense of urgency that has been so obviously lacking in its faltering career to date. Historic challenges must be faced. And if he is to face them, he will have to change. The conventional attitudes and traditional political skills he brings to the job will not be enough.
Varadkar embodies novelty, not just in Irish politics but in Irish society. His youth, his mixed ethnic heritage and his sexuality are all tokens of a profound change. This kind of novelty, though, wears off very quickly. Indeed, one of the most cheering things about his elevation is that the ways in which he is personally different have mattered so little. Any remaining sheen of newness will disappear as we get used to seeing him as taoiseach. If he wishes to retain the sense that a new start is being made, he will have to do more than be himself. The freshness must lie in new ideas and new approaches. What we don’t really know is whether he is capable of creating and sustaining them.
So far, Varadkar’s public career has been marked by a rather languid presence. He is popular because he has adopted, even in office, the relaxed, open, speculative demeanour of an outside observer. His tangible achievements are few. His efforts to divide Ireland into “people who get up early in the morning” and the scroungers targeted in his ill-conceived campaign against welfare fraud were poorly judged. His havering between presenting Fine Gael as a party of the middle class on the one hand and embracing traditional catch-all policies on the other makes him hard to define.
None of this will be good enough for a taoiseach who has to deal with multiple crises: the increasing uncertainties of the Brexit mess, a dysfunctional housing market, a radically inadequate health system, a lack of investment in infrastructure and the long-term effects of austerity policies on child poverty. These are emergencies and they demand a kind of leadership we have not had: dynamic, relentless, focussed and capable of giving to a drifting State a firm sense of direction.
Even at a time of scepticism about politics, Varadkar enjoys widespread goodwill. He has not arrived where he is today without showing intelligence, dexterity, ambition, articulacy and ruthlessness – all necessary qualities for a party politician. But to be a taoiseach who transcends his own party, he will need to discover other qualities, not least a passionate refusal to accept the unacceptable.