There is something especially unusual about Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s outburst against Mary Lou McDonald in the Dáil last week. It isn’t the content of his criticism of Sinn Féin’s often contradicting stances North and South, but the passion of it.
His voice trembles and he’s speaking off the cuff in a show of emotion we rarely see from the Fine Gael leader. While he can often show heart, some of his speeches are wooden and his media appearances staged, but nothing gets him fired up quite like the Shinners.
Perhaps it’s the fact that despite being the youngest leader of the youngest Cabinet in history, Varadkar has struggled to compete with McDonald and Sinn Féin for youth support. Social media was once friendly ground for the Taoiseach but now it’s a place where the cringey hashtag ‘Not My Taoiseach’ trends with regularity. Leo is no longer the only politician enjoying first name terms in the public sphere as Mary Lou has encroached on his turf.
What Leo Varadkar has however, is opportunity. He is measured against Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, a vast advantage when you consider that even Bertie Ahern in a cupboard would compare favourably.
He has, against the odds, a fresh shot at running the country. Even if he shortly becomes Tánaiste to Micheál Martin’s Taoiseach, he is joint leader and will have time to win over the support of young voters who’s trust he lost in his unsympathetic handling of the housing crisis. Given the scale of the Covid-19 crisis and its economic effects, expectations on a new government will be low. This is his new chance at history. Avoiding austerity and reopening the youth economy would be a good start.
Many commentators have quietly predicted that Varadkar would soon slip away from politics and enjoy the spoils of the private sector. This overlooks the fact that he is fundamentally a political animal and anorak. His historic elevation to the top job without an election would not be a sufficient legacy to satisfy him. Despite three years as leader, he still hasn’t overseen a major achievement that he personally authored. He was arguably only bystander of the two major reforms that coincided with his time in government to date, equal marriage and repeal of the eighth.
His love of historic references in his speeches and his wish that his speeches themselves could be better and memorable, will drive him on to achieve something bigger before he leaves politics. Leo Varadkar has often been at his best when his pin is to his collar. It’s when his popularity rises that he’s made mistakes.
The walloping of the election has seemed to help him find a groove in the pandemic crisis and there are signs of improvement. Despite the refusal of Simon Harris and Dr Tony Holohan to acknowledge any failure on nursing homes, the Taoiseach said last month he regretted that more wasn’t done sooner.
In another much overlooked comment, he said Australia’s plans to force tech giants to share ad revenue with content providers to help fund journalism was a good idea. This would mark a sea change in the Fine Gael leader’s lenient approach towards the industry, similar to his reversal on a rent freeze and evictions ban. A new version of Leo Varadkar is emerging.
When a coalition is finally formed, opponents will argue it’s not the one people voted for. However any collection of TDs that adds up to a majority is precisely what they voted for.
In fact Varadkar may have the most moral authorship of a new term in power since he stuck by all the promises he made in the election campaign. He ruled out entertaining Sinn Féin without wavering, while Micheál Martin and his party wobbled after the shock results. He made the offer of a grand coalition in debates and has honoured that pledge, whereas Martin has had to abandon the promise he made not to let Fine Gael back into government.
Leo Varadkar has been Taoiseach for almost three years but has not fulfilled his potential. What he faces now is a blank page of history to complete, and we are finally seeing glimpses of an under-used passion lurking beneath the surface.
Oliver Callan is a writer and satirist