Tuesday 25 October 2016

Andrew Lynch: No wonder that Leo Varadkar is now the favourite to succeed Kenny

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar

Shortly after the 2007 general election, a new Fine Gael TD with an unusual name stood up in the Dail and declared that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern belonged "in the gutter".

Although Bertie usually took these insults on the chin, even he was riled by young Leo Varadkar's lack of respect. "I'm big enough to take it, but when you hear a new deputy who isn't a wet week in the place... I'd say he'll get an early exit."

Not for the first time, Bertie's prediction was wide of the mark. Today, Leo Varadkar is the closest thing that Irish politics has to a celebrity, widely admired even by people who pay no attention to events in Leinster House.

Now an opinion poll has made it official - he is far and away the public's choice to become leader of Fine Gael when Enda Kenny finally retires.

On paper, it does not even look like much of a contest. The survey shows that 34pc of voters back Leo for Fine Gael's top job, exactly double the support for his main rival Simon Coveney (17pc) and even further ahead of Frances Fitzgerald (12pc).

Among Fine Gael voters his lead is even more impressive, with the figures showing Varadkar on 49pc, Coveney 16pc and Fitzgerald 14pc.

Leo's only response to the poll so far has been the standard disclaimer: "There is no vacancy." Whether Fine Gael win, lose or draw the upcoming general election, however, everyone knows that Enda Kenny is on the last lap of his political career.

At the age of 64, he would be wise to start preparing his exit strategy - because the race to succeed him cannot be postponed for much longer.

A few months ago, the legendary Fine Gael spin-doctor Frank Flannery summed up Leo Varadkar's appeal as a potential Taoiseach.

"Leo is a different kind of person... he's a tall, good-looking man, there's a certain exotic feel to him because he's half Indian, half Irish... he has the capacity to speak in a very straight language."

Last January, Varadkar did something even more dramatic to mark himself out from the crowd. He won huge respect for coming out as gay on Miriam O'Callaghan's radio show and went on to play a starring role in the marriage equality referendum victory.


Barely 20 years since Ireland decriminalised homosexuality, it is now a real possibility that we could soon become only the world's fourth country to have an openly gay prime minister.

All this, however, begs one big question: what would a Taoiseach Varadkar actually do?

The doctor from Castleknock has always been upfront about his desire to lead Ireland one day, but where exactly does he want to take us?

When Varadkar first came on the scene, he was branded a "thrusting Thatcherite" with right-wing views on economic and moral issues.

Back in 2008 he caused outrage by suggesting that unemployed immigrants could be offered six months of benefits to return home. He also described himself as "not in favour of abortion" and said that although not religious himself, he would "accept a lot of Catholic social teaching".

Since then, Leo the lion has been gradually changing into Leo the pussycat. These days he adopts a much more middle-of-the-road approach to most issues, using the sort of caring and sharing language that even his coalition partners in Labour would applaud.

On abortion, he recently indicated a personal shift by admitting that our current laws are "too restrictive" and have "a chilling effect" on doctors.

It is now just over a year since Enda Kenny sent Varadkar to the Department of Health, possibly to clip the young man's leadership ambitions. That strategy has obviously failed, but not because of any miraculous improvement in our hospitals.

The credit belongs to Leo's superb bedside manner, which sometimes allows him to complain about the health service's problems as if they had nothing to do with him.

Leo Varadkar has said that he plans to retire from politics before the age of 51. That still gives him 15 years to get in and out of the Taoiseach's office.

The Irish people are clearly willing to give him a go - but it is by no means clear what sort of leadership this most enigmatic of politicians would actually provide.

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