Tuesday 23 January 2018

I suspect Gormley saw the figures and freaked - that's where consensus came from

FUTURE: Andrew Lynch meets the FG communications spokesman fast becoming the king of the political jungle

WHEN Leo Varadkar first ran for the Dail in 2007, he handed out hundreds of Lion Bars emblazoned with the logo 'Vote No 1 Leo the Lion'.

Three years on, he is fast on his way to becoming king of the political jungle. Fine Gael's super-confident communications spokesman would be the first to admit that he gets on some people's nerves -- but he also has a steadily growing fan club who are convinced that the 31-year-old has what it takes to reach the very top.

"I have been called a smart arse in the past and maybe that's a fair criticism," he laughs, sipping water from a paper cup in a cramped and windowless Leinster House meeting room. "Others say that I've matured, which I sometimes find a bit patronising. But I believe some people want a politician who tells the truth and doesn't make a bunch of promises they can't keep -- and that's the market I appeal to."

Right now, Varadkar is a key member of the FG economic team trying to draft a four-year plan in response to the growing financial crisis. Over the past few days he has been setting out a distinctive position for the party, declaring that they want to frontload the pain in this year's Budget in order to reduce our national debt as quickly as possible.

By his own admission, he is not a particularly emotional person -- but even he shows flashes of anger when he describes the scale of the problem.

"It's even worse than we thought," he says. "We're now seeing that the adjustment will have to be in the region of €15bn over the next four years, which is precisely double what Brian Lenihan was saying until recently.

"What really pisses me off is that Cowen and Lenihan knew full well about this several months ago. They knew the bank bailout was going to cost more than expected and they knew the growth rate would be less than projected. They created this mess, they concealed it as long as they could -- and now they're trying to bring in the Opposition and force us to break the bad news.

"Having said that, the Government have played it quite cleverly over the last few weeks. I suspect that John Gormley saw the real figures a few weeks ago and freaked out -- that's where the consensus idea came from. Now they want FG and Labour to start fighting each other, which is a trap we mustn't fall into."

Despite this warning, Varadkar has put clear blue water between FG and their likely coalition partners by insisting that there should be a 3:1 ratio between spending cuts and tax hikes.

He can't yet be specific about where those cuts will come from -- but if he's serious about reducing the deficit by at least €5bn this year, it seems safe to assume that social welfare, health and education will all be in FG's firing line.

Varadkar is also working with his colleagues on a radical new plan for public service reform, which will be published next month. He says that the Croke Park agreement can be saved but may have to be torn up next year if the promised savings do not materialise. He also hints that FG will call for the complete dismantling of the HSE, which he describes as "a disaster".

Enda Kenny has famously said, "Read my lips, no new taxes". Can we take it that this promise is no longer operative?

"Yes, that was when we were talking about a €3bn budget," he says. "Of course there will have to be new taxes. But we are very clear that for every €1 we take off people in tax, €3 has to be saved."


So how does he feel about Eamon Gilmore's claim, made in these pages last week, that Labour can plug the gap without hurting low- and middle-income earners?

"Gilmore's sums just don't add up," he shrugs. "Labour's approach is working very well for them, but they're being populist while we're trying to provide real solutions. They're into anger, we're into answers."

But is he worried that it might be difficult to sell FG's new 'tough medicine' message on the doorsteps?

"Yes," he says. "It's a risk because you can be perceived as an axe-wielding maniac who's going to cut everything without any prospect of recovery.

"Our job is to give people a bit of hope as well, to persuade them that the economy will improve much earlier if we take these tough decisions now."

Leo Varadkar is an unusual politician for several reasons -- his youth, his frankness and his mixed-race background (his father is Indian and mother is Irish).

He is single, has recently lost weight through with a personal trainer and admits that he often finds politics a lonely business. Above all, he stands out because he is happy to call himself a right-winger.

"Ireland is funny because the vast amount of people are centre-right but pretend to be centre-left. There's this notion that if you're left-wing you're a nice person and if you're right-wing you're a nasty person. I'm on the right because I believe that the best way to create wealth is through the market and free enterprise -- it's then up to the Government to distribute it fairly."

His take-no-prisoners style can get him into trouble. The most recent example came in the middle of a Dail rant against Brian Cowen, when he slammed old party leader Garret FitzGerald for tripling the national debt in the 1980s. "Sometimes you actually forget there are cameras there," he laughs. "Garret didn't do a good job on the economy and I can't take that back because it's true.

"That's an incident that will probably follow me around forever -- but the funny thing is, I actually think Garret would be a very good president if he wanted to run for the Aras next year."

Last June, Varadkar was one of the nine FG frontbenchers who mounted a failed leadership heave against Enda Kenny. A couple of days before the vote, he went on Prime Time and said he was absolutely certain that Richard Bruton's side had the numbers to win. So what went wrong?

"I thought we did have the numbers, but obviously some people pretended to be on both sides," he smiles ruefully.

"It was a very bruising experience and I was badly burned by it, quite frankly. I certainly didn't enjoy it and I hope we never go through it again. My saving grace was that people realised I had nothing to gain from it -- I genuinely thought it was the right thing to do."

A few months on, is he not worried that Kenny's opinion poll ratings are as bad as ever?

"I've always seen Enda's strengths, my problem was that the public don't," he says. "There's still time for that to change before the election. But whatever happens, we won't be reopening the leadership issue -- the party is too obsessed with opinion polls in general."

Varadkar himself is now a regular fixture on any list of alternative FG leaders. Does he see himself as a future Taoiseach?


"Yes, is the short answer," he says. "A lot of party members say that they'd love me to be leader. But I'm very conscious that I might not be the kind of person who gets that position, because I am controversial and I do rub some people up the wrong way."

For now, Varadkar says he is concentrating his energies on a General Election that he expects to take place in autumn 2011. "My best guess is that the Government will get the Budget through, lose the three by-elections early next year, close the Dail early for the summer and then hold the election. But if the Budget is really bad, then some FF backbenchers might choose to pull the plug this year instead. So I've cleaned off all my old posters -- just in case!"

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