As a younger, and perhaps wiser, Leo Varadkar once said: there is no messiah who will lead Fine Gael from the desert into the promised land. This did not prevent him from presenting a decidedly messianic image as he posed for the cameras following his decisive victory in the party’s leadership contest on 2 June. Since then politics and the media have obsessed over his choice for cabinet posts with one potential appointee after another scrambling for pole position beside the new leader to confirm their adoration for the man who holds their future in his hands.
Soon forgotten was the uncomfortable truth that most of those among the party membership allowed to vote chose Simon Coveney from Carrigaline ahead of the man from Castleknock, and that Varadkar was elected through the over-whelming support of the parliamentary party and local councillors for the sole reason that they believe he is the most likely leader to ensure their re-election.
The wider party it seems judged the candidates on policy, rather than geography or dare we suggest because the average blue shirt just is not ready yet for a gay man whose father comes from India as their particular cup of Barry’s tea. This is not to suggest that Fine Gael people are more likely to be homophobic or racist than any other group of political supporters but that they simply have not got their head around the rapid change in attitudes of a population with an average age of 38, which also happens to be Leo’s.
For all this, Varadkar is as cautious and conservative as most in his party on both social and economic matters and is more likely to upset the wider LGBT community than endear himself to them. After all, he only came out as gay during the marriage equality referendum which many gay people saw as the culmination of decades of campaigning for their rights from which the young Leo had been silently absent.
More importantly however, as Taoiseach, he is unlikely to deliver on a repeal of the eighth amendment which adequately meets the progressive demand for an end to church and State interference with reproductive rights or to tackle the huge range of discriminatory measures the State employs against women, children and minorities in health, education and social provision.
There is little question that Varadkar will improve on the future prospects for his party colleagues and that they will go into the next election with greater expectations than if enda Kenny was still in charge. But that does not say much and neither does it take into account the harsh realities facing Fine Gael as it stumbles from one crisis to another while feeding from the life support provided by Fianna Fáil in government.
Fianna Fáil is now looking at a general election next year and possibly ahead of the third budget it agreed to allow under the confidence and supply agreement which was negotiated by a less than enthusiastic Varadkar.
His tendency to speak first and ask questions later will almost certainly cause some rocky moments over the coming months while his need to satisfy the many competing demands within his own ranks will also hinder any desire he may have to make innovative, not to mind radical, change.
Varadkar will be really tested when it comes to the bigger issues facing the country and the first challenge he faces is how to deal with the ongoing and apparently unceasing crisis within the leadership of the Garda. He was among the first to criticise former commissioner, Martin Callinan, for describing the actions of whistleblower, Maurice McCabe as “disgusting”, and almost certainly precipitated the end of his long career in the force. Now he has to decide whether to allow the beleaguered Noirin O’Sullivan to remain in position.
Varadkar will be happy to see the public service pay and pensions issue sorted before he takes full hold of the reins but the challenge posed by Brexit and its implications for the border and peace process would have been well outside his previous comfort zone. As to the insuperable health crisis as a medical doctor he might have been expected, when Minister for Health (2014-2016) to have led the delivery of the party’s plan for a universal health service to which he pays lip service, but there is a suspicion he ran out of ideas and little cause to think he will apply swift effective medicine as Taoiseach.
Ultimately it will be his willingness to stand up to the vested private interests that sustain and feed the housing crisis, the rise in economic and tax inequality, precarious work and poverty that will test his imputed qualities as a radical young visionary. However, his party promotes the low tax, poor public service model that appeals to the very people he needs to survive in the cruel world of politics. Let’s call it Leo’s paradox.