Making Leo cool is a disastrous mistake

Breda O'Brien: Varadkar was known as blunt and capable. His handlers think that is so last century

Following a two hour debate on a Sinn Fein motion the Dáil has voted by 85 votes to 49 to disband the Government’s controversial strategic communications unit (SCU). Video: Oireachtas

 

The spinmeisters are killing Leo Varadkar. He is being moulded into someone’s idea of a cool Taoiseach, but his appeal was never about being cool.

Instead, he had a reputation for blunt honesty. People liked that unusual quality in a politician.

They also liked that he was smart and apparently capable. These characteristics, combined with ambition, a good team and a lot of luck, managed to carry him to the very top.

His handlers decided that it was not enough to abandon brash rudeness, a necessary part of growing up.

Instead, they decided to dismantle everything that made him attractive as a politician in the first place. Now, people wait to see which once-core value will be abandoned next, like so much discarded baggage on one of Leo’s famed evolutionary journeys.

I only met Leo Varadkar once, many moons ago on a late night radio programme with Joe Higgins. I was a fan of Joe Higgins’s ferocious commitment to social justice (although we would have little else in common) and was looking forward to meeting him.

However, Varadkar and Higgins were in the same constituency and spent the time before the interview discussing recent opinion polling results. In the waiting area, I discovered I had a new superpower – invisibility.

This is not as usual as you might think. Most people, no matter what their politics or ideology, are polite and even warm in person both before and after programmes.

Invisible

I enjoyed being invisible. It was fun discovering that Joe Higgins and Leo Varadkar, so far apart on the political spectrum, had at least one thing in common – an epic ability to monologue.

The radio host bore a slight facial resemblance to Leo. When he jovially mentioned that people remarked on the similarity, Leo responded with a baffled stare.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: said the Strategic Communications Unit had become a ‘distraction from the work of Government’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: said the Strategic Communications Unit became a ‘distraction from the work of Government’. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

When the programme was over, I wondered whether I should try to break the silence and make small talk, but decided that it would be acutely painful for Leo and desisted.

I was chatting with someone the next day about it and when she realised that I was talking about Leo Varadkar, she reacted defensively.

“Leo is lovely,” she announced. “I have known him since he was a child and he is lovely.”

Leo is ill-suited to being the embodiment of a hip new generation

I filed it away as evidence of classic introvert behaviour – lovely when he knows someone well.

His aloofness and slight social awkwardness were evident to party colleagues and he still became leader. Part of it was that he embodied the zeitgeist – a confident gay man with an Indian dad. He seemed to look the part of a leader of a new and improved Ireland.

But in fact, Leo is ill-suited to being the embodiment of a hip new generation.

In Ireland, we only consider people conservative if they are conservative on social issues. We are so unused to genuine right-wing economic views, that we don’t quite know what to do when someone manifests them.

Acutely nervous

But there are plenty of people who are economically right wing who support Fine Gael and who would have cheered Leo’s “people who get up early in the morning” dog whistle.

Either Leo or the people surrounding him are acutely nervous that there are not enough votes in quasi-Toryism, so they have set about softening Leo, making him cool.

It is painful to watch. Does Leo really think so much about his socks? Does he use words such as photobombed? Is he all about his abs? Has his brain melted?

The casual use of a swear word was undignified

There was a ridiculous tweet after Ireland’s recent rugby victory, with emojis showing the Ivory Coast flag instead of our own Tricolour and an American football instead of a rugby ball.

Presumably, that did not emanate from Leo himself, so he has now entered dangerous territory with young people – trying too hard to be down with the kids.

As for Leo in Washington, trying to channel the kind of folksiness that Enda had down pat was a disaster. The casual use of a swear word was undignified.

The funny thing is, that pre-spin Leo was good at being dignified.

Minor incidents?

Does any of this matter? Are the tweet and sucking up to Donald Trump just unfortunate, relatively minor incidents?

Those managing Leo’s image are engaging in clumsy attempted manipulation without much success

No. They are significant, particularly in the context of the biggest spin machine ever funded by our Government gradually making its way into the heart of the civil service.

It is part of an insidious political trend that might be defined as, “These are my values and if you don’t like them, I have others.”

It began with Tony Blair and the inevitable successor is Cambridge Analytica, which is in the news for grabbing and selling vast amounts of Facebook data without consent.

In reality, Cambridge Analytica may actually be quite useless at microtargeting and influencing voters but was very good at selling the impression that their data obtained in less-than-legal circumstances contained vital insights.

Those managing Leo’s image are engaging in clumsy attempted manipulation without much success, either. And in the process, they are eroding everything that made Leo genuinely different and are turning him into something that even the satirical radio programme, Callan’s Kicks, finds hard to parody.

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