Teflon Taoiseach riding the wave of popularity

Just what is going on?

Teflon Taoiseach riding the wave of popularity

He saw his Government almost collapse after just four months in ignominy after misleading the Dáil on more than one occasion.

He has failed to deliver power-sharing in North after more than a year of stalemate.

Relations with Downing Street have become more strained than at any time since the 1990s, but in fairness that has more to do with the chaos in the British cabinet.

And, he is at risk of losing the upcoming referendum on abortion.

Yet, Teflon Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has become the most popular leader in a generation and his party appears on course to be re-elected.

On one level, it could be argued that the vast majority of people in the country do not care that all these things happened and are relatively satisfied with how the country is progressing.

Or is it his omnipresence on social media — from visiting newborn babies in Holles Street to hosting daily press conferences on the weather — what people really care about?

In a way, Varadkar is replicating what Bertie did in attempting to bypass the traditional establishment media to connect directly with the voters.

This image of an accessible, youthful leader, who still lives in an apartment and is of his time and speaks for the woes of the common man, despite being a private-school educated Blue Shirt who is looking to attract the votes of the upwardly mobile among us.

But it is also clear Varadkar and his team are always looking for an angle to promote him.

Given that the warnings from Met Eireann and the National Emergency Coordination Group had been almost non-stop for several days, did we really need a State of the Nation address from Varadkar at 5.30pm on Thursday evening warning us about buses and trains not running?

It leads one to ask — was that for his benefit or ours? Was he addressing that 35% or so of the voting population who Fine Gael can legitimately aim to call its core constituency?

Varadkar’s success leads one to ask the question: Is style more important than substance?

Varadkar’s diehard supporters will argue that there is plenty of substance to him, given his medical expertise and how often he works out and exercises. They really are that sycophantic.

In that way, Varadkar resembles Alexander Stubb, a similar leader from Finland who was fond of arriving at key European meetings in his gym gear.

The row in recent days over the placement of highly expensive advertorial spreads in national and regional newspapers, including the Irish Examiner, has cast Varadkar’s perceived obsession with his own image in a negative light.

Of most concern, has been the revelation that emails sent to newspapers from Mediaforce about the advertising campaign for Creative Ireland clearly show that content was to appear as editorial.

The email read: “Part of our deal is that we don’t have any moniker such as ‘advertorial’ or ‘special feature’ — it simply runs as normal editorial.”

The strategic communications unit said it did not direct newspapers to blur the lines between editorial and advertisements. Mediaforce did not respond to requests for comment from Ellen Coyne of the Times Ireland edition.

It was also revealed that some commentators did not know their quotes were being used in an advertorial. In the Dáil this week the Taoiseach said that “editors at individual newspapers had been responsible for signing off on the advertorials”.

Complaints have been made to the Standards in Public Office and the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland. There have been calls for officials from the Department of the Taoiseach to appear before the communications and public accounts committees.

Trying to contain the controversy, Varadkar performed his own mea culpa of sorts and insisted that the rules will be strengthened.

“I respect the concerns that have been raised. I agree with Ms Zappone that public money should never be used to promote candidates and there shouldn’t be a blurring of editorial lines,” Mr Varadkar told News at One on RTÉ Radio One.

“Guidelines were issued to media partners and agencies to make sure that didn’t happen but it is evident now to me that those guidelines will have to be strengthened and will have to be reissued, and I will do that. But my priority this week is the severe weather and the Brexit negotiations but I will certainly get onto that as soon as I can.”

What is clear from the criticism of the SCU and these ads points to the Opposition seeing Varadkar’s vanity as his Achilles heel. They seek to paint him as an out-of-touch, self-absorbed dilettante who cares little for the needs of the ordinary man.

The tweeted images of him running with Justin Trudeau or emptying the dishwasher or his weekly video message point to, they say, an orchestrated campaign to build his carefully constructed image.

But so far it is working.

Every poll published since the New Year, points to Fine Gael being the lead party at the next election. For all of his straight-shooting attributes and tendencies, Varadkar has also shown a desire to pass the buck in terms of responsibility when the heat comes on.

His arm’s-length defence about the Strategic Communications Unit’s placing the ads this week is an example of this. Such an attitude has led him to be described by some as the Commentator-in-Chief but our report today shows that not everyone within Government is buying it.

Independent Alliance ministers have reacted with anger at what they see as their deliberate exclusion from the controversial “advertorials” in newspapers by Fine Gael.

Transport Minister and de-facto head of the Alliance has strongly criticised the Taoiseach’s €5 million Strategic Communications Unit (SCU), which had responsibility for the advertorials.

Ross made no bones about saying the unit has not made any difference to his job.

“I just been in touch with SCU boss John Concannon to find out what happened over the past week. I don’t see any particular shift in my fortunes, I don’t see any change one way or the other,” Ross said.

“The IA is looking for material to justify what you say and to see if there is any basis, there is no evidence but we are looking at it. It is an unanswered question,” he said.

On foot of the controversy over the advertorials, the way in which government advertisements are displayed in newspapers is set to be reformed.

Ross, the transport minister, said “bad mistakes” had been made on the marketing campaign.

Ross said it is “absolutely wrong” that the Government had been able to pay for adverts that papers were told to run like normal editorial.

Unlike the majority of Enda Kenny’s 15-year stint as Fine Gael leader, Varadkar undoubtedly stands as the unified and unassailable leader of his party.

And as long as his poll numbers and those of his party remain high, the ‘All Leo, All the Time’ approach is set to continue.

It seems we are that shallow.

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