Varadkar’s dreadful (re)Start

One Ministerial Resignation. Another (possibly overblown, but real) Ministerial Scandal. A hospital beds crisis. An immigration policy on the rocks. And now, per polling at the weekend, a slump in Fine Gael support to a miserable 19%.

If you wanted to summarise Leo Varadkar’s first eight weeks back in the Taoiseach’s office, you’d struggle to say much positive about it.

Or, indeed, much positive about his performance personally.

One of the few good things about the rotating Taoiseach deal agreed by the coalition before taking office was that the moment when the top job switched around was also an obvious moment for a political re-set, and a change-around. Indeed, early on in the lifetime of the coalition, more than one Fianna Fáil TD was known to wonder, not particularly discreetly, whether his party had not made a terrible mistake by “going first” in the Taoiseach’s office. Their fear was simple: That after 2.5 years of Mr. Martin, the country would be crying out for change, and Mr. Varadkar would be seen to sweep back and provide that change.

So far, those fears seem unfounded. If anything, to judge by the weekend poll, which showed a 4% increase in FF support at the direct expense of Fine Gael, the voters feel that there has been a downgrade in the Taoiseach’s office, and would prefer Mr. Martin back.

For the entirety of Mr. Varadkar’s leadership, Fine Gael has been a party without an identity. He won the leadership, infamously, by promising to defend “people who get up early in the morning”. In the best traditions of Irish politics, this was immediately and dishonestly interpreted by the chattering classes as a cold-hearted attack on those disadvantaged and vulnerable types who sleep until noon, and, as such, both the rhetoric and accompanying policy agenda was swiftly dropped. Mr. Varadkar was reinvented as just another harmless social democrat. A man with a sharp tongue, but with nothing new or interesting to say.

When you have nothing new or interesting to say, it is better on balance to have a soft tongue, like Mr. Martin – a man who has always made saying nothing a virtue by cloaking the absence of any ideas in his utterances in words like solidarity, and compassion, and decency. Mr. Martin is a man of many talents, but none greater than his ability to plamás and mask his face in a concerned frown and an empathetic nod. He might not do anything, but he can list at will perhaps fifteen enquiries and reports and recommendations that the government “intends to take action on”.

That is not Mr. Varadkar’s style. At his best, he is a controversialist: There’s a reason his best moments usually come on the attack, either when going after welfare cheats as Minister for Social Protection, or as when, last June, he took on Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty:

What he lacks, though, is the ability to make inactivity seem a virtue. And, concurrently, he also appears to lack the ability to deliver a coherent vision for his Government.

Indeed, it is very notable that solo runs have increased since he took the reins back. In recent weeks, Green Ministers in particular have increased the kite flying: We have had apparently un-agreed pronouncements about keeping Ukrainian refugees here permanently, and bringing in tens of thousands of climate refugees. We have had Ministers announcing new policies of their own, like Simon Harris trying to reinvent himself as a crime-busting hard-liner in the acting justice portfolio. To use a sporting metaphor, the Government seems more and more like a collection of individuals, rather than a team. When that happens, the manager is usually to blame.

The ultimate question, to which there is no answer, is “what does Mr. Varadkar want to do, exactly?”

At the moment, his Government seems to have no real purpose other than to react to, and give soundbites on, the crisis of the day. There are no obvious endgoals, or failure standards, for anything it wishes to achieve.

We cover immigration extensively here at Gript, but to make an obvious point: This Government says it will accept more and more migrants, and at the same time says it lacks the housing for those who are coming. This is an obvious contradiction that it is the duty of the Taoiseach to resolve, but it’s one where Mr. Varadkar has nothing to say. “Do your own thing” seems to be the message to Roderic O’Gorman and Joe O’Brien respectively, even if the pronouncements of those two ministers on a major area of policy seem perpetually to contradict each other.

All in all, it’s been a terrible start. And there are no signs that it will get any better. We seem to have a Taoiseach who has power, but has no real desire to do anything with it at all.


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