Varadkar’s success hangs on what he learns from Bertie Ahern
Pat Leahy: Political capital, of which the Taoiseach has plenty, must be spent or lost
It’s always good to see someone enjoying themselves in their job, and Leo Varadkar was certainly enjoying himself this week. An encouraging opinion poll which featured vertiginous personal approval ratings for a Taoiseach the like of which have not been not seen for anyone in the office since the mid-2000s; a bit of plain speaking stirring things up in the Dáil; then off to Davos to rub shoulders and exchange mobile numbers with the political and business leaders of the world under the arc lights of the international media.
Yep, not a bad week all told. Munching the avocado and sourdough toast this morning, Varadkar could be forgiven for luxuriating in his most recent numbers. Look at that poll, his supporters say, not even bothering to try to not look smug, that’s the difference between Leo and Simon. Politicians rarely let go completely of old battles.
If Varadkar’s personal poll ratings were reminiscent of the numbers more familiar from the glory days of Bertie Ahern, swanking around Davos with the global elite owed more to the playbook of French president Emmanuel Macron, someone with whom Varadkar has consciously identified in the past. Certainly, to the fan boys in the Fine Gael parliamentary party and associated circles, Varadkar’s premiership resembles Macron’s “Jupiterian” presidency (his own term) more than it does the careful cunning of the Bertian model.
Yet the ultimate success of Varadkar as Taoiseach will depend more on whether he learns from the successes and the failures of Ahern than whether he can emulate the Jupiter of the Elysee.
Varadkar has some of the advantages that Ahern enjoyed in his early period. A thriving economy, filling the government’s coffers, has opened up policy possibilities that previously cash-strapped governments could not have envisaged. We may have once more become blasé about strong economic growth and rising incomes, but it’s easy to forget just how squeezed the country and its governments were in the recent past.
The Taoiseach also enjoys the political freedom and authority that comes from a party united behind him, dovetailing on his popularity. He has the interest and attention of the public. And he has the indulgence of a media that has not yet tired of him.
Ahern had all this at his back and he converted it into a political dominance that was so all-encompassing as to re-orient the entire political world so that it appeared to revolve around his gravitational pull. He defined the age; his opponents tried only to emulate him.
But Ahern’s political dominance came to serve principally itself. Economic policy was shoe-horned into the electoral cycle. Public spending became an electoral tool. Caution was abandoned. The goal was re-election and power at all costs.
What does Varadkar want to do with similar advantages? The great policy challenges of the day are housing and health. There is an urgent need to plan sensibly for the future in not just these areas but in education and infrastructure. There is a massive generation gap in jobs, housing and pensions that a 39-year-old should appreciate.
Amidst all the Bloomberg interviews and tweeting at Davos, it was also obvious that there is a growing challenge to the Irish economic model, and the battleground will be taxation of multinationals. Ireland has to fight this battle while negotiating Brexit. There’s a lot more to do in all these than has already been done, if you know what I mean.
There are political dangers along the way. Varadkar’s comments about the bank of mum and dad during the week demonstrated the limitations of his political hinterland. As Taoiseach he must speak for and to all the country, not just the parts of it with which he is comfortable. Fine Gael’s support is greatly exaggerated amongst the better off. The richest voters are also much more likely to approve of the way Varadkar and his government are performing. What does that tell you?
He must manage expectations. If we built them a bridge to the Aran Islands, a member of one of Ahern’s cabinets once said , they’d want two bridges.
And perhaps the greatest danger is the one Ahern eventually fell into: throwing money at every problem.
Right now voters are listening to Varadkar and many of them are eager for him to succeed. But that phase won’t last forever. US observers often describe a leader’s power, capacity, popularity and simple ability to get things done as “political capital”.
But political capital – and Varadkar’s treasury of it is bulging at the moment – is a wasting asset. It cannot be hoarded; it must be spent or lost.
If Varadkar wishes to solidify his current political supremacy he needs to use his political capital: to push through reforms in health, to bully local authorities into building more housing.
He needs to force the great machine of government to work harder and smarter, and to do things that it has previously resisted doing because they discommoded vested interests or threatened the power and position of certain groups. His power to do so may never be greater than it is now.
I think that if Varadkar can use his current political momentum to achieve these sorts of things, he can solidify the support the current polls show. He can put down roots. He can change politics to his advantage in the way that Ahern did.
People trusted Ahern to run the country because they believed his governments had made a positive difference to them in their daily lives. That remains the challenge for Varadkar’s administration.
Otherwise it’s not Jupiter, king of the gods, to whom Varadkar will be compared – it’s Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and ended up in the sea.