Noel Whelan: Varadkar’s reign will be fresh and dramatic
New Fine Gael leader’s quietness makes his meteoric ascent all the more remarkable
Leo Varadkar reached the highest political office in our system just 10 years after he first entered parliament. Photograph: Aidan Crawley/EPA
The most remarkable thing about the fact that Leo Varadkar will be elected taoiseach next week is not that he is gay or the son of an immigrant but that he is so young and that he has reached the highest political office in our system just 10 years after he first entered parliament.
Varadkar’s election echoes those of Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron mainly because it represents such a dramatic generational shift.
At 38, he will be our youngest taoiseach ever and is almost three decades younger than his predecessor. Varadkar was born three years after Enda Kenny was first elected to Dáil Éireann. He will be the first child of the 1970s to become taoiseach; in fact born as he was in January 1979, he is almost a child of the 1980s.
He is the first of our senior politicians to be formed by the politics of the 21st-century.
Varadkar’s first politically precocious act was to run in the 1999 local elections when he was just 20 years of age. It was quite an electoral blooding. He polled just 380 first preferences as the party’s only candidate in the Mulhuddart electoral area, which was – and still is – very unfriendly territory for Fine Gael. However, it was to be the only time Varadkar lost an election.
He showed considerable political skill in being able to articulate public concerns (even criticisms) of the government while still being a prominent member of it
When the local elections next came around in 2004 he ran in the Castleknock electoral area which is significantly more middle class and which was also the catchment for his father’s local GP practice.
As a rising star in Young Fine Gael he attracted a lot of young campaigners and a lot of financial support. There were no limits on local election spending at the time and the Varadkar campaign was as lavish as a general election effort.
So too was the result. He polled a whopping 4,894 first preferences which was almost two local election quotas. He was then inevitably the candidate and seat winner in the Dublin West constituency in the 2007 general election and has been comfortably re-elected twice since.
As a new backbencher he was brash, bullish and a magnate for media coverage. He was also able and was quickly appointed to the front bench.
Varadkar’s rapid rise to the party leadership is all the more remarkable when one recalls that he was one of the young bucks behind Richard Bruton’s disastrous attempt to topple Kenny as Fine Gael leader in 2010. It could have proved a career-destroying error.
Other able politicians who opposed Kenny then or thereafter never recovered political traction. John Deasy and Lucinda Creighton are the most prominent examples of such. Varadkar however was lucky. Fine Gael did not have very many deputies in Dublin so Kenny restored him to the front bench and appointed him to cabinet in 2011.
Such luck was only a small part of the story of his steady progress. He showed considerable political skill in being able to articulate public concerns (even criticisms) of the government while still being a prominent member of it. He also matured politically as a minister. Civil servants in departments where he was minister speak highly of him.
He was also politically sophisticated in the manner in which he came out as gay to the public in January 2015. He chose his timing well, with the marriage equality referendum on the horizon. He also chose his medium well by doing it on radio in a lengthy personal profile with Miriam O Callaghan and by treating it in a matter of fact way. It was a carefully planned moment which managed to come across as authentic and unforced.
One of the most striking things about Varadkar’s meteoric political rise however is that he is extraordinarily shy. He is not gregarious or glad-handing. He is quiet and introverted. It is a characteristic in a politician which, especially if combined with middle-class origins and intelligence, is often unfairly interpreted as rudeness or snobbishness. He works hard at countering it, often by asking questions as a substitute for small talk.
Shy politicians tend to find it easier as they progress however. Enhanced profile means that people come up to them rather than requiring the effort to be made the other way. As taoiseach crowds will flock to Varadkar.
The manner and pace with which Varadkar has come to the top job suggests he is highly organised, politically astute and ambitious not only for himself but in what he wants to achieve.
There is every reason to believe that along with his allies and advisers he has put as much thought and preparation into what he will do as taoiseach as he did to getting there. He is likely to have planned his first weeks and months very carefully. Top office often reveals the true nature of a man.
The first phase of the Varadkar premiership is likely to be fresh, energetic, structured and dramatic. It will need to be.