Varadkar’s victory: nothing personal, just business
Decisive majority of Fine Gael TDs judged potential gain in seats was worth risk
Leo Varadkar: the big question is whether he has the temperament and the stamina to step into the taoiseach’s role. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Asked to explain how a relative political novice such as Leo Varadkar was on the point of becoming the next Fine Gael leader and the youngest taoiseach in the State’s history, a senior Fine Gael Minister remarked: “This is a cold, calculated political decision. Leo gives us a better chance than Simon of gaining seats at the next election. It’s as simple as that.”
It was that judgment by a majority of Fine Gael TDs and Senators that prompted the unexpected stampede to Varadkar at the start of the leadership contest and effectively put it to bed after less than 48 hours of Enda Kenny announcing his decision to step down as party leader.
While many of them acknowledge they are taking a risk by putting in charge of the party and the country a 38-year-old with just 10 years’ experience in the Dáil behind him, a decisive majority of the parliamentary party has calculated the upside makes it a risk worth taking.
- FG leadership tracker: track the contest and check who your local TD, Senator, MEP and councillor is supporting
One of the strongest arguments in Varadkar’s favour is that he has displayed an ability to perform under pressure. During a recent Dáil outing as the stand-in for the taoiseach and also at the final Fine Gael hustings he showed the kind of coolness and debating skill that will be required in the next election.
One of the things Fine Gael TDs and members found so frustrating about the last general election campaign was that despite the party’s impressive record on the economy the Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, ran away with the debate by espousing the hard-to-define concept of “fairness”.
Most importantly Varadkar has managed the almost impossible feat of being a politician who comes across to the public, especially younger voters, as if he is not a politician at all. In this anti-politician phase of western democracy that is a crucial asset.
The timing of the leadership contest is also important. Varadkar has been able to present himself as being in tune with the zeitgeist. Fine Gael TDs hope he will be able to ride the wave of the pro-EU, modernising sentiment that swept Emmanuel Macron to power in France.
For all that, last week’s Irish Times poll put Simon Coveney ahead with the general public and he even had a slight edge with Fine Gael voters. However, Varadkar was ahead among a number of key demographics that will be decisive in determining whether or not Fine Gael can hold on to its position as the biggest party in the country at the next election.
He is has a lead among middle-class and middle-aged voters, while Coveney is ahead among older and working-class voters. Fine Gael TDs believe Varadkar offers a better prospect of gaining support among the segment of the electorate that is open to vote for the party while Coveney gets support from voters who are unlikely to vote Fine Gael in any circumstances.
The big question, though, is whether he has the temperament and the stamina to step into the taoiseach’s role. Bertie Ahern used to argue that a TD needed to serve at least one Dáil term and more likely two before they could be considered for even a junior ministry. That is why he left the obviously talented Brian Lenihan kicking his heels on the backbenches for almost a decade.
By contrast Varadkar will have gone all the way from county councillor to taoiseach in the same time frame. It is some achievement but it means he has not been tested in a number of senior ministerial positions in the way almost all of his predecessors were. It is only when he is actually in the job that it will become clear whether or not he has the qualities required to do it.
As well as intellectual ability the job demands huge reserves of mental and physical stamina. His colleagues don’t doubt Varadkar’s intelligence but whether he is equipped to make a multitude of decisions under pressure, day in and day out, and cope with the inevitable torrent of criticism from the Opposition and the media will become evident only in time.
The physical stamina required of an individual to make a success of the taoiseach’s office should not be underestimated either. The level of around-the-clock commitment Kenny gave to the job was not widely appreciated but his work rate was phenomenal.
Varadkar’ strengths and weaknesses differ from Kenny’s and they are going to be tested from the word go. The Opposition parties will inevitably put him under pressure from day one and seek to caricature him as an Irish Tory out of sympathy with the majority of the population.
He will also have to deal with the most unusual Dáil in the State’s history, in which the Government is far short of a majority and is utterly dependant on the main Opposition party for its survival.
Varadkar made it clear during the Government formation talks last year that he was not enthusiastic about the arrangement. The big question is whether he will let Fianna Fáil dictate the political pace or call that party’s bluff and take his chances in a general election before the year is out.