Pat Leahy: Varadkar’s shaky week may have a long-term impact

Taoiseach’s damaging Trump comparison adds to Brexit and election misfires

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that he "profoundly regrets" if anyone thinks he does not respect the media after comments he made at a private lunch in New York. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

It has been a bad week for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, his worst since the demise of the Strategic Communications Unit, which in turn was the worst since he contrived the nearly-election of early December last year.

That’s three very bad weeks in his first year, give or take. If that’s not such a bad rate of errors note that the frequency tends to increase the longer a politician stays in office.

Varadkar screwed up not because he criticised the media, who are big enough and bold enough to take care of themselves, but because of the terms and the circumstances in which he chose to do so.

Unguarded comments at a private lunch are simply reckless for any Taoiseach, who should operate on the expectation that anything he says in such an encounter stands a better-than-evens chance of being reported in the press. The Taoiseach is never not the Taoiseach; everything he says matters. A year in office, Varadkar should know that by now.

Criticising the press is fine; so is making jokes at its expense. Aligning himself with Donald Trump is not. Aligning himself with Donald Trump in the company of young Irish New Yorkers (which included some people who work in the media) is just bonkers.

Journalists are perfectly aware of politicians’ views of the media’s shortcomings; for one thing they tell us often enough. Journalists are also aware what politicians say about them – individually and collectively – when they are among their own kind.

The relationship is supposed to be scratchy, and occasionally rowdy. It doesn’t have to be discourteous or aggressive, but it should respect the different and at times combative roles. As someone remarked during the week, the farmer and cowman can’t be friends.

Miss the point

But Ministers and commentators who smirk and tell the media to get over themselves miss the point. It isn’t because the Taoiseach offended some journalists (though that’s probably not helpful to him) that this affair has been bad for him. It is because he chose to do so in a way that calls his judgment into question – not so much in the eyes of the press but in the muttered conversations of his colleagues.

One Cabinet Minister grimaces when asked about it. “The judgment question,” he concedes painfully.

A clear and utterly avoidable mistake is the verdict of another senior figure.

Neither the Constitution nor political logic gives Leo the power to have his election while blaming someone else for it

All governments have enough on their plate without making things harder for themselves. Questions about his coolness under fire are now routinely muttered among the non-fanboy base in the parliamentary party.

But other more substantial elements also made this a bad week for Varadkar.

Though it has gone largely unremarked upon, one of the central planks of the Government’s tactical approach to Brexit – to have the matter of the Irish Border resolved before the wider negotiations on a Withdrawal Treaty and future relationship reach a crunch stage this autumn – has gone completely off the rails.

Final evidence for this was supplied at last week’s European summit. Varadkar thrives amid the high politics of European Council meetings, where his command of policy detail and keen political instincts are a significant advantage. But he seemed – to me, anyway – a bit ill at ease in Brussels on this occasion.

If he was, no wonder. For months he and his Foreign Minister had been signalling the need for progress on the Irish Border question by June; none was forthcoming.

He had previously suggested that the backstop arrangement could apply to the UK as a whole (a development that would have considerable advantages for Ireland); last week in Brussels he was saying that this would lead to the destruction of the single market. Consistency this is not.

Goading Martin

The third element of Varadkar’s shaky week has been his attempts to create the context for an autumn general election. For weeks now he has been goading Micheál Martin, ostensibly because he is seeking an extension to the confidence-and-supply agreement – in the interests of stability, you understand.

But he knows (because Martin has said it repeatedly) that Fianna Fáil has guaranteed the Government until the end of the year and will talk about an extension after the budget.

If the Taoiseach wants an election – the Constitution gives him this power – then he can have it. But neither the Constitution nor political logic gives him the power to have his election while blaming someone else for it.

In fact, I think Varadkar has missed the boat on an early election. It will not be possible to contrive one in September – weeks before the budget and at the most crucial stage in the Brexit negotiations with two and possibly more European summits in the middle distance – and say he is acting in the interests of stability. There is also the small matter of abortion legislation.

There is a view in Government that Varadkar’s election drumbeats will push Fianna Fáil into renewing the agreement. I don’t know about that. To say Fianna Fáil is encouraged by the week’s events would be something of an understatement. Everything they have seen in the past week or so tells them – we can take this guy.

Given the flaccid state of the polling numbers that strikes me as an optimistic view of the world, but you can see where they’re coming from all the same.

Fianna Fáil will renew confidence and supply if Brexit means it has to. Otherwise Varadkar can’t make them do it. And after this week they are less afraid of him than ever.

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