Five months in and yet to face a real challenge

It’s just over five months since Leo Varadkar took the reins of Fine Gael, writes Juno McEnroe

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at the official opening of the Fine Gael national conference in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan.

Younger than any taoiseach before him, he has taken to the job with gusto, an enthusiasm and energy but still with that candid approach that helped him rise through the ranks in the party.

But he has yet to face a real challenge, a political storm, so many of which befell his predecessor Enda Kenny. Yes, there have been the banks, Brexit, the ongoing housing crisis, and ,of course, the gardaí. But, in the main, the new Taoiseach has escaped any scandals or events of his own making. Many of these matters — in a similar way to when Varadkar was in health — were there when he arrived.

Nonetheless, what makes a leader is how they fix problems, how they tackle housing, reform the gardaí, prepare for Brexit, and handle the banks. Time will see if he is up for the test.

And he will be judged more harshly in the coming months. The political honeymoon for Varadkar is coming to an end, the shine somewhat fading and there will be less time and enthusiasm for the 38-year-old to tweet pictures of his colourful socks — as he did last week.

Cavan’s Slieve Russell Hotel was packed as the Fine Gael leader took to the podium last night. This was his first national conference since becoming leader, and an important one, after the grassroots members previously backed Simon Coveney over him for the leadership.

Instead of spiteful attacks on opposition parties, this was replaced with an ‘above-the-trenches’ speech. It was peppered with mentions of families, making work pay and creating opportunities for people. Varadkar spoke about his family, about a new generation of leaders in Europe, Brexit, tax cuts and and home ownership. The Independent Alliance were also given a good mention after a turbulent week for the eclectic government partners.

It was a magnanimous address, praising other parties too, including the Greens, Labour, and Fianna Fáil.

This was no battle cry, drawing the lines for a general election. Instead, it sought to build support, to lay the ground for future coalitions and, most importantly, to give viewers and readers at home a sense of hope or optimism, a belief that not all politics is adversarial.

Indeed, minority governments may be around for years to come. Varadkar said: “We work with others because a good idea is a good idea, and a good policy is a good policy.”

But it was also a rallying speech, summing up recent budget measures, the public sector pay deal and it was complete with promises of more tax reforms and supports for workers.

There was also a promise to make Dublin the tech capital of Europe. Undoubtedly, there is vision and ambition there.

The litmus test though will be the months ahead when the impact of Brexit becomes clearer, when the health and housing crises come to a head and when the current support deal with Fianna Fáil is tested.

For now, Varadkar can aspire, he can fly flags for the future and even show off his socks. But real tangible change must come too.

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