Daniel McConnell: Varadkar could well follow in Eoghan Murphy’s footsteps

Murphy is the third senior Leo Varadkar loyalist to depart the scene for the private sector after Brian Hayes and Michael D’Arcy, writes Daniel McConnell
Daniel McConnell: Varadkar could well follow in Eoghan Murphy’s footsteps

Eoghan Murphy and Leo Varadkar: It is clear that, since Mr Murphy stepped back from Cabinet last June, their relationship has changed. What is also clear is that Mr Varadkar tried and failed to convince Mr Murphy to remain for the good of the party. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Just why are Leo Varadkar’s friends abandoning him? Do they know something we don’t?

Last Tuesday’s announcement by former Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy to resign from politics poses several questions.

A sudden resignation from a sitting Government TD is still an uncommon occurrence, given how much work is required to get to the Dáil in the first place.

Only in politics for 12 years, in the Dáil for 10, Murphy was touted for high office from early on.

Having been a 'stone in the shoe' of former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, leading a rebel ‘five-a-side’ club, Murphy saw his ambitions take a back seat when Simon Harris was promoted in 2014 and he wasn’t.

Having been re-elected in 2016, Murphy found himself elevated to the junior ministerial ranks by Kenny, with whom relations had thawed.

He aligned himself to Leo Varadkar, going on to become his campaign manager when Varadkar challenged for the Fine Gael leadership.

Murphy’s elevation to Cabinet was assured, but there was some surprise that he was given what many saw as the poisoned chalice of the Housing ministerial portfolio.

Listening to his lengthy interview with RTÉ’s Claire Byrne this week, Murphy gave a glimpse of the toll on himself and his family during the toughest times of his tenure as minister.

He opened up about the verbal abuse he received and said even an ex-girlfriend had to deal with “horrific abuse to her face”.

He faced intense scrutiny for his handling of the homeless crisis.

“When it comes to politics, criticism is absolutely fair, you've got to hold public people to account. When it comes to getting personal abuse, I understand it too, because people are hurting,” he said.

"It was tough but you develop coping mechanisms, a lot of miles were spent running out at Sandymount Strand after coming home from work after a difficult day. 

"It has absolutely nothing to do with why I'm leaving but I think it's a discussion we should have in Irish life.

"While I got abuse, the people around me got abuse too. A previous girlfriend of mine used to get the most horrific abuse in public and that's not on."

I remember sitting on the press gallery in the Dáil chamber on the night he survived his second motion of no confidence in late 2019 and he cut a distinctly forlorn figure.

As the walkthrough vote was ongoing, Murphy stood on the government benches alone until Paschal Donohoe approached him for a supportive word.

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. File Picture
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar. File Picture

It was a visceral example of how lonely a job politics can be and how personal it can get.

It is clear since leaving Cabinet last year, Murphy has sought to recalibrate his options.

He referred to the job being a 24/7 obsession almost and that he doesn’t yet have a family of his own. 

It was a remark tinged with sadness — he has committed so much to being a politician that he allowed huge parts of his life to pass him by.

There are plenty of ways to make a decent living with far less hassle.

While he insisted his departure is a purely personal decision, it of course has wide-ranging political consequences for Varadkar and his party.

Firstly, it raises the requirement to hold a by-election within six months, which in light of current Covid-19 conditions is a far trickier enterprise logistically than normal.

Secondly, government’s rarely win by-elections. They often give those in power a good kicking and the fear is the election battleground will be about cuts to supports and the lack of housing.

In the well-heeled constituency of Dublin Bay South, such issues may be less prevalent than elsewhere, but the by-election is the first real opportunity for the people to cast their verdict on the government’s performance.

By-election results can potentially become symptomatic of wider problems for a government and the timing of the poll will be very important.

With new legislation for holding elections during Covid times still making its way through the Dáil, there is zero chance of the by-election happening this side of the summer recess.

That means the Government will take a chance and run it before October’s budget when an element of austerity will have to feature. Not an entirely attractive prospect.

But, what does Murphy’s departure say about Varadkar and his leadership?

Murphy is the third senior Leo Varadkar loyalist to depart the scene for the private sector after Brian Hayes and Michael D’Arcy.

Murphy’s departure is the most significant of the three.

Hayes had been an important voice to Varadkar in his early days in Leinster House and both were part of the cabal who sought to dump Enda Kenny in 2010. 

D’Arcy was a key soldier in the marshalling of the Fine Gael parliamentary party in support of Varadkar in the 2017 campaign.

But, Varadkar undoubtedly trusted Murphy and considered him as a close ally.

It is clear since stepping back from Cabinet last June, their relationship changed.

What is also clear is that Varadkar tried and failed to convince Murphy to remain for the good of the party or even to show him that he has a future at the top level of the party.

Tanaiste Leo Varadkar (left) and Eoghan Murphy leaving the Convention Centre Dublin in March. Mr Murphy vacated his Dáil seat earlier this week. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Tanaiste Leo Varadkar (left) and Eoghan Murphy leaving the Convention Centre Dublin in March. Mr Murphy vacated his Dáil seat earlier this week. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Murphy did the calculation and saw that the chances of Fine Gael being in power for a fourth consecutive term is a very tall order, which means a lengthy spell in opposition probably awaits.

Having tasted power at the top level, did Murphy figure that his ministerial career was over no matter what and an easier, more hassle-free life now lies ahead?

Interestingly, of the six ministers, I surveyed for reaction, to a man and woman they came back and said: “He won’t be the last”.

Fine Gael is approaching a crossroads where the staying power of its current top brass is an open question.

There is mounting talk that Paschal Donohoe, given his newfound fame as President of the Eurogroup of finance ministers could be tempted away out of national politics.

But Varadkar’s own staying power is not an open and shut matter.

He said he did not envisage still being in politics at the age of 51.

Such commentary leads one to think that while he has enjoyed a charmed existence to date, the future is far less rosy looking.

He could simply decide to follow Murphy by exiting stage left.

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