Nora Owen whose appeal is otherwise limited but who seems to know a lot about Fine Gael, of which she was once deputy leader, including perhaps what it represents, says Leo Varadkar came to her constituency as a 17-year-old and that “he was appallingly right-wing and very aggressive”. He was also overweight and seems to have adopted the blazer look favoured by the young fogie. It is easy to imagine him as the caricature of a Tory. Lucinda Creighton has said she wasn’t exactly enamoured of him when she first met him around that time: “I felt he was a bit obnoxious”, she has said.
So what changed with Leo?
Nothing (except perhaps an inflated bonhomie).
Being ideological in Ireland is impossible for historical and cultural reasons so the press can’t call a rightwinger a rightwinger. But he is.
Here’s something he ventilated during his recent campaign for the leadership of Fine Gael. “I’m not sure what values Minister Coveney is putting across. The only value seems to be that we should try to be kind to everyone. And that’s not what I mean by political values. When I talk about political values I mean the things that actually are Fine Gael’s political values – like equality of opportunity, and like enterprise and reward. These aren’t things I’ve invented, these are in our Constitution”. He added other values but for him these were incontrovertible, prime and pre-eminent.
It is a recipe to make Fine Gael the nasty party, long after Theresa May’s half-hearted analysis sent Britain’s Tory party in search of a bit of nice. Its membership, a majority of whose members favoured the Just Society touting Simon Coveney, should brace themselves.
Imagine being a half-Indian gay 38-year-old in the prime of your life and at the top of your career and deciding what you want to do is target the most disadvantaged in society, those most discriminated against in the most tangible ways, economically and socially.
Imagine feeling that you want to spell out a message that the most scandalous misappropriations are by the welfare classes not the bankster classes. Imagine being Minister for Social Protection, representing the classes that have nothing to get up for in the morning and running a campaign that promotes those who get up early in the morning.
Varadkar appears to have been assimilated. The doctor with the King’s Hospital education has no instinct for the disadvantaged or the oppressed. There is insufficient space here to outline what this appears to mean for his views on social issues such as abortion, mental health and racism. There is enough about his views on economics and redistribution. David Langwallner and Ben Harper make the case in this month’s Village that his economics is that of the markets: Neoliberalism. Certainly he is the apostle of equality of opportunity rather than substantive equality – of outcome.
He has noted with the derisiveness of the College debater, “We could have much more equality and be poorer”.
Indeed he says: “My difficulty with the whole right-left construct is that I don’t think it describes modern politics, or the modern choices that people face in the world,” he says. “But I don’t want to be running away from a label. If I was to describe myself in terms of a political philosophy, I’d cast myself as a social and economic liberal, which is typically what people describe as being left-of-centre on social issues and right-of-centre on economic issues. It’s not that I’m afraid to be tagged with the label of right-wing, or even centre-right, I just don’t believe it properly describes either the choice that we face politically, or what I’m trying to say”.
But Varadkar is no Macron and there is no need for a shift to the right here. Ireland has among the lowest tax regimes in Europe, among the fastest growth rates, among the poorest public services. France is the opposite in every respect. Furthermore Ireland has taken a paralysing dose of austerity over the last decade; France eschewed it. When the circumstances are different we must apply different measures.
Ireland has taken its turn to the right. It does not need a Thatcher with a broad, cosmopolitan grin to take it further still towards ‘economic freedom’.