Daniel McConnell: Leo undermining his own government is not good enough

The truth is a pattern of undermining his own government has emerged since Leo Varadkar has become Tánaiste.
Daniel McConnell: Leo undermining his own government is not good enough

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has been undermining the Government's policies with his self-obsessed behaviour. It raises questions about his commitment to the historic coalition

Forty-eight hours after the Budget, the phrase #leotheleak was trending on Twitter.

Not that the echo-chamber that is Twitter is representative of much, but Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was coming under fire for appearing to publish Budget details before they were officially announced.

At 2pm on Budget day, before Michael McGrath had announced the measure, Mr Varadkar’s Twitter account went: “Self-employed? Earned Income Tax Credit increased and now equal to PAYE tax credit. If you are in receipt of PUP, you can earn up to €480 per month from casual work and keep your full payment #Budget2021”.

Other journalists and I immediately pointed that what he had done was to effectively leak budget matters ahead of their formal announcement.

Many people referencing that back in the 1990s, then junior minister Phil Hogan had to resign after details of the Budget were faxed to newsrooms.

When asked about it the day after, in an interview with me, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe said the incident was “no big deal”.

“From my point of view it's no big deal at all, because there was maybe somebody in his office trying to indicate the things that were relevant to their government department, but already a huge amount of information was out there in the public domain,” he said in defence of his leader.

So much was being made of Varadkar’s tweet as he is seen as "having form" in this regard. He took to Twitter to announce Kildare was remaining in lockdown moments before Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s press conference on the government decision began.

Moving beyond Varadkar’s premature utterances for a moment, he again courted controversy by clearly undermining his own Government’s housing policy the morning after the Budget.

Appearing on Morning Ireland, Varadkar was speaking about the plan to deliver 12,500 new social homes next year, with 9,500 of those directly built by local authorities.

He began by praising the promise as "hugely ambitious" and the biggest in "decades, if not ever" but almost immediately took a dump right over it by saying: "It is one that is going to be hard to achieve quite frankly".

The Tánaiste also commented that a shortage of builders and the Covid restrictions may also negatively impact on the delivery.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Picture: Julien Behal
Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. Picture: Julien Behal

Such undermining from within government was immediately seized upon by the Opposition.

As Labour leader Alan Kelly said in the Dáil on Thursday: “I have issues with the Government’s housing figures as well. I respect the ambition of what is being put out there but I am just not sure if these targets are deliverable in reality. 

"I listened to what the Tánaiste said this morning and I do not believe they are deliverable in 2021. I also think the help to buy scheme is a farce. It acts as an incentive to drive up prices and facilitates the speculation of developers. All anecdotal and statistical evidence shows that. That scheme is not going to be a success.” 

It was yet another episode which allowed many even within government to question the Tánaiste’s commitment to making this historic coalition work. The charge is that he is continuously putting his own self-interest ahead of government harmony.

His actions last week summed this approach up.

He had begun the week with his extraordinary attacks on the newly returned Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan and Nphet’s recommendation to move the country to level 5.

Immediately battle lines within government were drawn. 

The Taoiseach and his Fianna Fáil ministers were at pains to praise Dr Holohan amid some talk he was on the verge of resigning. Thomas Byrne, the EU affairs minister said he disagreed with Varadkar’s comments.

Meanwhile, Helen McEntee, Mr Donohoe and other Fine Gael ministers rowed in behind their party leader.

Then in the Sunday Independent last weekend, Varadkar sowed even more confusion by raising the issue of the country going into a “short, hard lockdown.” 

“On Monday night on Claire Byrne Live, I made a particular point not to dismiss the proposal for a 'circuit break'. This would represent a short, hard lockdown to knock the virus on the head again, and reduce case numbers to a manageable level. Similar to a second lockdown - but not as long. 

"It may well be needed at some point. No other country in Europe has tried this. It would be an experiment but it could work. In Israel it seems to be producing results,” he wrote.

Such was the concern within Government at his suggestion, which had not been agreed, that the Taoiseach presented himself in front of RTÉ’s Paschal Sheehy in Cork that afternoon to kill off the idea of any circuit-breaker lockdown.

Micheál Martin. File picture: Julien Behal
Micheál Martin. File picture: Julien Behal

So all of the incidents taken with Varadkar’s previous instances of going rogue begs the question – just what is he up to?

Very few if any buy the argument that he is merely seeking to retain his party’s individual identity in this historic three-way Coalition.

Even fewer believe that such utterances are totally accepted by his coalition colleagues who in truth are tiring of what they see as his self-obsessed behaviour.

Michael McGrath, the public expenditure minister in an interview with this newspaper spelt out how he assesses what is going on.

“Leo was Taoiseach up until to a few months ago. And I would imagine it is a very difficult transition to go from being number one to number two. And it is a unique situation in that he's going to come back in as Taoiseach in a period of time,” he said.

Is it simply that all of this noise from the Tánaiste is merely a reflection of his difficulty dealing with his reduced station in life, albeit on a temporary basis?

While he and his supporters may seek to argue away one or two cases with individual circumstances, but the truth is a pattern of undermining his own government has emerged since he has become Tánaiste.

It frankly has not been good enough at a time of a global pandemic.

One of the traits I have long admired about Leo Varadkar is his ability to speak directly and plainly, yet it is this streak in him which has let him down.

While Micheal Martin’s decision making was questionable in the early weeks in office, there is no doubt he has found his rhythm allowing him to grow into the job as the leader of this country.

Having previously occupied that post and in the expectation of doing so again, more has been and is expected of Leo Varadkar and time has come for him to remember that.

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