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From poisoned chalice to top of the table, is Leo Varadkar now destined to be Taoiseach?

The Social Protection Minister could succeed Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael … and the country.

Pictured is Minister Leo Varadkar standing under a sign that says HIM

This post was first published on 19 May. It has been republished – with minor edits – on the occasion of Leo Varadkar’s election as the new leader of Fine Gael on 2 June 2017.

IT SEEMS AS though Leo Varadkar was destined to work in medicine.

His mother Miriam, from Dungarvan in Waterford, was working as a nurse in England when she met his Mumbai-born father Ashok, a doctor.

The pair had settled in Dublin before Leo, the youngest of three children, was born in 1979.

Varadkar attended St Francis Xavier National School and The King’s Hospital in Dublin, before studying medicine at Trinity College and qualifying as a GP.

Destined to be a doctor perhaps, but is he also destined to be Taoiseach?

Varadkar was an active Young Fine Gael member in college, serving as chair of the Youth of the European People’s Party (of which Fine Gael is a member in the European Parliament) at one point.

leoyfg1 A young Varadkar in 1999 campaigning for Simon Coveney, now his rival to lead the party Irish Election Literature Irish Election Literature

His rise through the ranks of Fine Gael was relatively swift.

The then-medical student contested the local elections in 1999 in the Mulhuddart area of Dublin. He failed to be elected but was co-opted to Fingal County Council for the Castleknock area in 2003, serving as deputy mayor.

In 2004, he received the highest first-preference vote in the country in the local elections, getting almost 5,000 votes on the first count.

After securing a Dáil seat in the Dublin West constituency in the 2007 general election, he became the party’s spokesperson for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

‘You know where you stand with him’

Fine Gael councillor and current deputy mayor of Fingal County Council Eithne Loftus told she’s “not surprised” by how quickly Varadkar has risen through the ranks of the party.

I knew the first day he ran for party, the day he was elected. I knew and I said it at the time. I was the chair of the constituency at the time and introduced him as our future leader.

“I’m not at all surprised, he’s a very, very smart man. The country needs someone of his stature to lead.

“I have watched him grow since he became our local representative here and have seen his ability and general concern for the job that he does.

“I’ve nothing against Simon Coveney, we are very lucky to have so many people who are capable of doing the job of leader, but on this occasion I think Leo is the better option.”

12reasonsvarada (1) A flyer from the 2007 general election Irish Election Literature Irish Election Literature

Fond of speaking his mind, a somewhat rare trait in Irish politics, Varadkar is never far from the headlines. Some view his straight talking as refreshing, but others think it’s his Achilles’ heel – something prone to landing him in hot water.

Despite her praise for Varadkar, Loftus admits they haven’t always seen eye to eye.

“We would have disagreed on numerous things but certainly you knew exactly where you stood with him. I prefer someone to give me the truth and speak his mind.”

The failed heave

One of the notable times Varadkar spoke his mind was when he was on the wrong side of a failed heave against Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader in 2010.

During a Prime Time interview at the time, Varadkar explained why he was backing Richard Bruton over Kenny. He drew inspiration for his answer from a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign ad in 2008.

Taoiseach Enda / YouTube

Varadkar said Kenny had built up the party “brilliantly” over the previous eight years.

However, the then Enterprise Spokesperson said the second thing the leader of the Opposition has to do is “convince the people that he can serve as their Taoiseach”.

“Unfortunately, over the last eight years, and it’s not just one opinion poll, Enda Kenny hasn’t been able to do that. And it’s not that I’ve lost confidence in him, it’s that the public doesn’t have confidence in him. And unfortunately that’s the truth and it’s something that we all know, it’s something that you know.

And I had to ask myself that key question, the 3am question is that if we’re in government and if there’s a national crisis and if there’s a sovereign debt crisis for example and [then Central Bank governor] Patrick Honohan lifts up the phone at 3am and rings the Taoiseach, who do I want to answer that phone?

Despite backing Bruton, Varadkar was one of those not cast aside from the front bench when Kenny, now Fine Gael’s longest-serving Taoiseach, fought off the heave.

Speaking to previously about that period, Varadkar’s fellow rebel MEP Brian Hayes said: “Leo [Varadkar] had done his own sort of polling in his constituency … He said he was absolutely certain that Kenny should go but was not certain – and he pointed at Richard [Bruton] – ‘that you’re the solution’. I thought it was brilliant.

“Richard kind of blushed and said: ‘Sure that’s it, but it’s me or nothing.’”

When Kenny appointed a new frontbench the following month some of the rebels were saved but given different portfolios, including Varadakar and Simon Coveney (now the Housing Minister and his rival for the top job).

Back in 2015, Fine Gael’s former Director of Organisations and Strategy Frank Flannery told this publication: “Guys like Leo and Simon were kept on. These were very key events and allowed the party to move on as if it hadn’t happened.”

‘Poison chalice’ 

When Fine Gael formed a coalition government with Labour in 2011, Varadkar was appointed Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport.

A Cabinet reshuffle in 2014 saw him moved to the Department of Health, perhaps a role more suited to the doctor.

However, health is often dubbed the most difficult seat at the Cabinet table – given the constant battle with waiting lists, hospital trolleys and lack of resources.

90502953 Kenny and Varadkar with ministers Simon Coveney and Frances Fitzgerald, who has ruled herself out of the leadership race Leon Farrell / Leon Farrell / /

Brian Cowen, himself a former Taoiseach, who served as Health Minister as part of Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil government in the late 1990s famously compared the portfolio to Angola, in terms of how many ‘bombs’ one has to defuse no bombs when at the helm.

Speaking about the appointment at the time, Varadkar himself said: “I’m not sure if I’m able to turn the poison chalice into sweet wine, but I’ll do all that I can to improve our health services.”

In the end, he only served as Health Minister for 22 months – a relatively short period in such a vast portfolio.

As the Oireachtas is currently looking to develop a 10-year plan for the health service, Varadkar’s stint seems a bit ‘blink and you’ll have missed it’. His appointment to the Department of Social Protection (DSP) last year was seen as a lateral move by many, including Varadkar himself.

Speaking on RTÉ radio in 2016, he said: “I’m in some way sorry to be leaving Health.

It was a really tough department, probably the toughest in government, but it is one where you can make an important impact.

He said his redeployment to the DSP wasn’t a demotion, but “may well be a sideways move”.

The department’s ongoing ‘Welfare Cheats Cheat Us All’ campaign, which encourages people to report others who they suspect of committing social welfare fraud, has been making headlines recently.

Measures in the new Social Welfare Bill include the quarterly publication of the names, addresses and penalties incurred by people convicted of welfare fraud, and the potential to reduce the amount a person can receive in social welfare benefits if they’ve been convicted of fraud.

90502956 Varadkar and Kenny Sasko Lazarov / Sasko Lazarov / /

The move was welcomed by some but others were critical. Bernadette Gorman, a former social welfare inspector, described it as “a hate campaign”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Seán O’Rourke this week, Gorman, who has been involved with the DSP for 30 years said: “I don’t like where the department is going. I do think Leo Varadkar was on some sort of solo run but I don’t know what his officials were doing allowing it.”

Gorman said, from her experience investigating welfare claims, “complex human stories” rather than conscious fraud are often behind welfare rules being broken. She added that she believes the plan is “all about his own bid to become leader [of Fine Gael]“.

Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea said the campaign is “both a gross misrepresentation of the actual levels of fraud perpetrated against his department and an attempt to curry favour with significant right wing element of the Fine Gael organisation”, comparing Varadkar to Margaret Thatcher.

Varadkar has said the new rules will act as a deterrent to crack down on welfare fraud.

When announcing the campaign in April, he said:

We take fraud very seriously and have a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure that people receive what they are entitled to. Nothing upsets people more than someone else cheating the system at their expense.

Reports of suspected fraud have increased significantly since the campaign was launched. However, there have only been 11 cases of suspected fraud so far this year, according to the department’s own figures.

Last year, the DSP made €41 million in overpayments due to customer fraud in 16,225 cases – a decline on the €49 million paid out in 2015 in 21,407 cases of customer fraud.

When Varadkar spoke about seeking to revamp the country’s social welfare system when appointed minister, people saw that as him throwing his hat into the leadership ring.

At the time, Varadkar said he was “waiting on the day I sit on toilet and someone says it’s part of a leadership strategy”.

*That* interview

For a person not afraid to talk on most topics, Varadkar was – like most Irish politicians – reticent to talk about his personal life.

It made an interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio 1 in January 2015 all the more noteworthy.

On that morning, he publicly came out as gay.

He said part of the reason to go public was his new role as Health Minister, as issues such as surrogacy and the ban on gay or bisexual men donating blood now came under his remit.

“I just want people to know that, whatever decisions are made on any issue, I’ll make them according to what I believe is in the public interest and my own conscience. I won’t be allowing my own background or my own sexual orientation to dictate the decisions that I make,” he told O’Callaghan.

MIN VARADKAR Julien Behal / Maxwells Julien Behal / Maxwells / Maxwells

Undeniably, the announcement was significant. It took place four months before the referendum on marriage equality – which, of course, passed – and made Varadkar one of a few openly gay members of the Oireachtas.

No, a person’s sexual orientation does not impact on their ability to do a job, but having an openly gay leader of the country would show far Ireland has come in the two decades since homosexuality was decriminalised here.

To some, there was another part of the interview that was more surprising than him coming out. Miriam Lord noted in the Irish Times that Varadkar “shocked the political establishment by telling RTÉ’s Miriam O’Callaghan that ‘a politician should trust people with the truth’. Then he shocked the nation by revealing that he is still only 36 years old.”

Indeed, his quick rise through the ranks of Fine Gael means he’s younger than many of his peers at the Cabinet table.

All to play for 

Opinion polls – although we’ve learned they can’t always be trusted – generally gave Varadkar the edge over Coveney very early in the leadership race.

Today, the final results showed Coveney won the backing of 65% of Fine Gael’s grassroots members, but Varadkar took the victory after securing significant support among local representatives and the parliamentary party.

90423450 The two main players: Coveney and Varadkar Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

The final count, including all three electoral colleges, saw him win with 60% to Coveney’s 40%. The electoral college breakdown was as follows:

  • Parliamentary party: 70:30
  • Local public representatives: 55:45
  • Membership: 65:35

Fine Gael’s parliamentary party consists of 50 TDs, 19 senators and four MEPs.

How they voted in the leadership contest accounted for 65% of the outcome, while the votes of ordinary members made up 25% and councillors’ votes just 10%.

‘Who wants to lead the Opposition?’ 

When asked by in January 2015 if he wanted to lead Fine Gael, Varadkar, who had just been appointed Health Minister, said he didn’t know. / YouTube

“Ask me that maybe in four or five years time. Now, at the moment, absolutely, definitely not … It’s the last thing on my mind at the moment, particularly with the job I have at the moment, trying to get a handle on the health service. I really want to get stuck into that.

In four or five years time, if I’m still around, ask me that question and I’ll give you a straight answer at that time.

It’s only been two years, but he has just given his first speech and press conference as Fine Gael leader, nodding to the fact that he is soon to become Taoiseach.

“When my father travelled [to Ireland]… I doubt he ever dreamed that his son would one day grow up to become its leader and despite his differences, his son would be treated the same and judged by his actions and character, and not by his ardents and identity,” he said.

The 38-year-old earlier said that people around the world look to Ireland and are reminded that this isn’t a country where it matters where you come from, “but rather where you want to go”.

However, he may not have a lot of time to get comfortable in this new top spot. A general election could happen sooner rather than later and could see Fine Gael return to the opposition benches.

During the same interview with in 2015, Varadkar was asked if he wanted to be Taoiseach. His response? “You’d hardly want to be leader of the opposition. Who would want to do that?”

Read: It’s on: Simon and Leo hold first events as Fine Gael figures declare preferences

Read: The man who would be king – is Simon Coveney on a well-worn path to Taoiseach?

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