Lise Hand admires Leo Varadkar’s immaculate stage directions in his campaign so far, from backdrops to props and stealing scenes from his rival. But his policy details will not go down well with everyone

FOR oh-so long it was a one-scene play. Two forlorn figures huddled together on a (front) bench. The dialogue between them was one simple exchange:

“Let’s go.”

“We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“We’re waiting for Enda.”

But now the curtain has fallen with a thud on their elusive leader. Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, Fine Gael’s equivalent to Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon (albeit better-dressed) are now the leading men in their own dramas. But with almost two weeks yet to run, what sort of play’s afoot? Will it be Hamlet, with a crescendo of grisly political deaths by the finale? Or is it more of a Mamma Mia! sort of production where everyone gets along together just fine and there’s lots of craic on a sunny island?

One of the principal characters did a full rehearsal for the role of taoiseach in Dublin’s Smock Alley theatre yesterday. So far in this campaign, Leo’s stage directions have been immaculate, from backdrops to props to scene-stealing from his rival.

The social protection minister arrived into the quayside venue, entering through a door which had just been pulled shut, presumably for better dramatic effect. All that was missing was a panoramic shot of him walking on the Liffey beforehand. And he had brought along his new script, snappily titled ‘Taking Ireland Forward’, a 12-page manifesto of pledges, promises and presents which will be handed out to everyone in the electoral audience, should he land the top job.

And there were goodies galore. He secured the fealty of any Fine Gael grassroots luvvies (if such an exotic animal exists) by announcing he would double the budget for arts, culture and sport over seven years.

Waiting for Leo: King-in-waiting takes centre stage

He committed to a referendum on the 8th Amendment next year; to substantially increase spending in capital projects; and he promised a refund to all the poor saps (not his language, in fairness) who dutifully coughed up the now-defunct water charges.

But Leo did also produce a metaphorical dagger, which he proceeded to plunge into the heart of his political protagonist, vowing to abolish the ‘help to buy’ scheme for first-time buyers if it was shown to increase house prices. This is one of Simon’s key policies and doubtless there was a muttered “Fie!” from the housing minister when he heard of Leo’s intention.

So too, could be heard the indignant bristling of multifarious beards in union offices across the land at his plan to introduce legislation banning public sector workers from striking in essential services. At this announcement, up pricked the ears of all the journalists arrayed along the cheap seats. Was this a stealth move to prevent public servants from their democratic right to pickets and to shout rude things through megaphones?

Leo was at pains not to be painted as a panto villain on this matter.

“This is not proposing to ban strikes,” he said firmly. “What this proposes is that when there’s an issue that goes to the Labour Court when both sides agree it goes to the Labour Court and when there’s a determination by the Labour Court, if it’s an essential service or security service as defined by the Oireachtas, then that should be binding,” he explained.

Waiting for Leo: King-in-waiting takes centre stage

But journalists are a tough crowd. What constitutes “essential services”? The gardaí, nurses, doctors? All of them or some of them? Leo sensed the approaching nee-naw of trouble, and played it safe.

“It certainly could include emergency services, where it’s life-and-death,” he suggested, dodging the slings and arrows of outraged workers. However, invoking the wrath of the public sector is not as perilous as his scheme to modernise the way that government departments go about their business, allowing ministers to hire external experts. “Government departments can be very conservative, and it’s only by bringing in people with outside expertise that you can drive forward a political agenda,” he said.

Uh-oh. Of course the phalanxes of Sir Humphreys who ensure the smooth running of governmental wheels (in the direction which they wish them to go, naturellement) would be too well-bred to unleash a chorus of boos at this threat to their power, but Leo best beware that machinations, hollowness, treachery and all ruinous disorders don’t follow him disquietly to his (political) grave, a la poor auld King Lear.

But the Leo-who-would-be-king showed a spark of exasperation at the notion that he’s a rabid right-winger hellbent on dragging his party even further down that direction of the political spectrum. “What I’d like is to be part of a centrist movement which we see all over the world which combines the best of Left and the best of Right and stands up to the two extremes, and that’s how I intend to govern if I’ve the opportunity to do so,” he insisted.

Waiting for Leo: King-in-waiting takes centre stage

It was an assured performance and he didn’t fluff his lines. Though one can be reasonably sure the reviews of his script will be mixed.

Then he left the centre (stage) to head off to his next engagement. He exited stage right, of course.

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