Leo 'the Tory' Varadkar looks like the right man

Not everyone may agree with frontrunner’s move away from a liberal agenda, but we have a sense of where he stands, writes Daniel McConnell

Leo 'the Tory' Varadkar looks like the right man

Leo the Tory or Simon the Hippy.

That would appear to be the choice for those in Fine Gael, who have the honour of electing our next Taoiseach.

It would seem perverse that 73 members of the parliamentary party, 232 councillors and the 21,000 members of a party who got just 25% of the vote in the 2016 General Election should have that privilege, but there you have it.

For almost two years, while other pretenders came and went, teased and taunted, forged and then faded, we always knew it would be a two-horse race between Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar.

On one level, one could argue what is the fuss all about.

It is a choice between two privileged, private-school educated, socially awkward nerds.

One the solid, diligent if slightly dull merchant prince with the glamourous wife and family. The other an openly gay doctor and his boyfriend.

So much was made of their personal backgrounds with suggestions that Leo’s sexuality might be a major impediment to his chances.

Clearly, the opening 10 days of the campaign have dispelled that nonsense.

Both men did however promise radical generational change.

Both have promised to bring Fine Gael in a new direction.

I’m just not sure we expected the two to go the directions they went.

It would seem that over the course of the campaign to become Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, the two contenders have developed into extreme versions of themselves.

Leo, the seemingly unassailable frontrunner, has apparently decided to ditch any hint of his liberal persona which he has so carefully cultivated in recent years.

His call to represent those hard-working people who get up early in the morning was no accidental or misjudged statement from Varadkar, who in truth is a hard-nose conservative.

He knew it would infuriate the pinko leftie liberals who saw it as an attack on the unemployed welfare class, as some in Fine Gael refer them as.

He deliberately knew it would resonate with the Fine Gael base.

The entrepreneur, the farmer, the self-employed, the negative equity generation.

He went even further.

“We should not divide our society into one group of people who feel they pay for everything but qualify for nothing and another who believes they are entitled to everything for free and that others should pay for it,” he declared at his policy launch last week.

Couple this with his desire to outlaw strikes in so-called essential sectors once a Labour Court decision has been made, Varadkar was beginning to sound like a fully paid up disciple of Margaret Thatcher.

He also has plans to level the playing field between the self-employed and employees in terms of tax credits.

“We believe in rewarding work, innovation and talent. We believe in lower tax rates on income so that people can keep more of their own money.

“They know best how to use it.

“We believe that everyone should have an equal chance to achieve their full potential through education, equal rights before the law, employment opportunities and a social welfare system that is a strong safety net and a second chance but not a way of life,” his 12-page manifesto makes clear.

It all gives the impression that Fine Gael under Varadkar is edging to the right of the centre ground in Irish politics.

Much of what he is saying is necessary and overdue, particularly his aim to help the self-employed, but it does have the smack of not caring for those who do find themselves languishing on benefits or in need of State support.

As for Coveney, the also-ran in this contest so far, has decided not to fight Leo on just who can be more right wing than the other.

Simon Coveney beams in black and white prior to the hustings pitting him against Leo Varadkar at the Clayton Hotel Silver Springs, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Simon Coveney beams in black and white prior to the hustings pitting him against Leo Varadkar at the Clayton Hotel Silver Springs, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan

In fact, he has decidedly headed back into the centre ground so much that he is sounding left leaning.

His ‘Positive’ campaign for a ‘Positive Ireland’ is just so…. ‘Positive’.

“Our goal should be nothing less than the creation of a society in which everyone can participate and an economy from which everyone can benefit,” his campaign literature states.

Even at a doorstep in Wicklow last Wednesday, he sought to make a very clear distinction between himself and his rival.

The housing minister was not impressed with his colleague’s declaration that Fine Gael is the party for people who get up early in the morning.

“Yes of course we represent that person,” said Simon, before getting his dig in. “But we also need to focus on the people who can’t get up in the morning for whatever reason or don’t’ have a bed to go to at night”.

Coveney’s campaign from the off was up against it.

Not just in terms of the declarations, his messaging was not as sharp as Varadkar’s nor was it as compelling.

Some people may not have agreed with Leo’s vision, but they certainly have a sense of what it is.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the Coveney campaign.

With the four nights of hustings now over, Coveney if he is to have any chance will need his party’s councillors and ordinary members en masse to abandon Varadkar and swing to him if he is to have any chance of success.

While so many declarations are just that, they are not actual votes and again Coveney is hoping that those who rushed out to profess their adoration for Leo in the early hours and days of the campaign will see the light and come to him.

It of course can happen, but it is unlikely.

While the Coveney camp has in recent days talked up their councillor numbers, our Irish Examiner poll of councillors as well as a similar tracker run by Fiach Kelly in the Irish Times suggest Varadkar is in a commanding lead.

With voting opening today for the members and councillors, while he has to be commended for staying in the race, it seems Coveney is not destined on this occasion to be leader.

More in this section

Lunchtime News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up