Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Leo Varadkar’s long game

Leadership is a tricky business. It takes many different forms and styles. With it comes power. However, if you want power you must be able to seize it. Strategising for such an eventuality takes patience, lots of it.

In early 2011 Miriam O’Callaghan stood on the Dail plinth with a stony faced Micheál Martin and asked him if he had got things wrong, quoting PJ Mara saying ‘You have to have the numbers’. Martin had just lost his challenge to Brian Cowen. The question overlooked one thing. No Fianna Fail leader has ever lost a motion of confidence in the party or been deposed at the pinnacle of a heave. No, a heave is a much more complex situation.

Richard Bruton, supported by Leo Varadkar found this out to their cost. It was a tough lesson. Bruton’s indecisiveness cost them the initiative. Then, when they lost they were surprised and had no plan for the aftermath. In a heave you must accept that in all likelihood, unless you get very lucky, you will not defeat the leader. The all out assault is merely a ploy to keep the Leader and all the party apparatus busy while you plan for what happens when you lose.

Leo Varadkar is not planning a heave. There is no need to at this point in time. He is however, planning for the future. He is setting out his stall as a politician and positioning himself for whatever the future may bring.

No matter who you are people eventually tire of you. We get bored of the same faces and same approaches. Without any doubt a day will come when ‘Enda Fatigue’ sets in in earnest. At that point people will tire of so much of what Enda brings. After Albert Reynolds FF could not wait to install the ‘lets all be friends’ approach of Bertie Ahern. After 14 years of compromise FF were rushing to the man seen as the ‘hard man’ Brian Cowen. Now sometimes leaders don’t turn out to be what you expect, but your perception when choosing them is everything.

After a bullish Michael Noonan, FG were eager for the far more personable Enda Kenny. When we tire of Enda we will want something very different. Varadkar is crafting an image. It’s a very seductive image for an Irish politician at this point. He is showing himself to be the opposite of Enda Kenny in almost every way, yet he is still Enda Kenny’s friend. He is not afraid of decisions. He is not afraid to admit if he gets things wrong or to revisit a proposal. He is loyal to his party but not to the point that he ignores faults within it or its history. He conveys an approach that is at ease with the media, at ease with questions and happy to argue a case.

He also conveys an image of strength. Not afraid to have an argument and not afraid of speaking out. A self confidence that is often lacking in many politicians. Leo is crafting and perfecting this image in the full knowledge that whenever people tire of Enda Kenny they will look to someone who embodies very different values.

The problem for Varadkar is that he still has a tough job to do in health. The system was a mess in 2011 and one of the great advantages James Reilly had was the general perception that anything would be an improvement because it could not get worse. Somehow he managed it though. Varadkar has a lot of cleaning up to do and Health has scuppered careers in the past. On the other hand if he manages to even take some small progress from the Department and aims for more modest victories he could be hailed as a hero. If that happens he will certainly be a force to be reckoned with.

The long game is always what’s important in politics. Enda Kenny will be watching young Varadkar and will know he is a very different opponent to many of his others. Fine Gael will be watching him closely as a party and the public perception of him. If the polls demand it then a party reacts. A knock may one day come at Leo’s door and he will be dragged (kicking, screaming and protesting of course) to centre stage for the good of the party. There is a lot to happen between now and then though and Leo would be well advised to keep a close eye on those around him. One thing never changes at cabinet, everybody is threatened by ambition. Enough small boys working together can overcome the big boy.


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