Varad­kar is set­ting a blis­ter­ing pace but real race has not even started yet

Irish Independent - - NEWS - Kevin Doyle Po­lit­i­cal Edi­tor

BE­ING Leo must be ex­haust­ing. As well as the self-im­posed ban on Satur­day lie-ins, the Taoiseach has de­cided he wants to have the an­swer to every ques­tion, a joke for every oc­ca­sion and a word for ev­ery­body.

The stamina dis­played by Leo Varad­kar since he took of­fice 100 days ago is quite re­mark­able to wit­ness at close quar­ters.

His de­trac­tors say he is try­ing to cre­ate a cult, which would sug­gest that the Fine Gael leader sees him­self as a mes­siah.

As the ‘Repub­li­cans of Op­por­tu­nity’ gath­ered in Tip­per­ary this week, the at­mos­phere was buoy­ant but work­man­like.

There was no snip­ing or whis­per­ing in the cor­ri­dors about the boss or the lat­est opinion polls.

For the first time, the me­dia was in­vited into the par­lia­men­tary party meet­ing for the Taoiseach’s open­ing ad­dress. If noth­ing else, it saved TDs tex­ting us their ver­sion of what went on.

Mr Varad­kar spoke for more than 20 min­utes, ad­dress­ing the big is­sues of the day – go­ing off-script three times to joke about the po­ten­tial of Mayo win­ning the All-Ire­land fi­nal; de­fend­ing Garda re­forms and an­nounc­ing plans to change Nama’s re­mit.

He at­tempted to make it look like it was ‘top of the head’ stuff – but with Mr Varad­kar, noth­ing hap­pens by ac­ci­dent.

It was low-hang­ing fruit for us in the me­dia to scurry out to our lap­tops and fu­ri­ously tap up copy on the lat­est ruse for re­solv­ing the hous­ing cri­sis.

Mr Varad­kar talked about his per­sonal in­ter­est in fix­ing health and warned that Dublin must con­tinue to com­pete for for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment “but not at the ex­pense of the rest of the coun­try”.

One min­is­ter re­marked af­ter­wards: “There was more in that speech than in most of Enda’s com­bined. I can’t ever re­mem­ber Enda talking about health or hous­ing like that.”

So by mid-af­ter­noon on the first day of the think-in, the Taoiseach had kept his troops happy and the me­dia busy.

So far, so good for Leo – even if no­body in Fine Gael was quite sure what the sub­stance be­hind their Nama plan was.

His lunchtime ral­ly­ing call ended with a ref­er­ence to the re­cently leaked let­ter that Barack Obama left in the Oval Of­fice for Don­ald Trump.

“Like Obama, we em­brace hope and as­pi­ra­tion, a bet­ter life as some­thing to as­pire to, some­thing to rise up to. It’s not some­thing that can be handed down by some­one else. As­pi­ra­tion shouldn’t be a dirty word. Nor should am­bi­tion,” the Taoiseach said.

The ref­er­ence to Obama led to some eye-rolling but it’s all part of a game of ‘good by as­so­ci­a­tion’.

By evening, Mr Varad­kar faced a more dif­fi­cult speech – by his own stan­dards at least.

It’s well doc­u­mented that he is not en­tirely com­fort­able with small talk or, as the lads in the pub might call it, ‘ban­ter’.

TRA­DI­TION dic­tates that the trav­el­ling jour­nal­ists are fair game for the leader’s af­ter-din­ner speech. Ex­pec­ta­tions were low but the Taoiseach (who was the most ca­su­ally dressed man in the room) came pre­pared.

For 23 min­utes, he roasted the me­dia in a fashion sim­i­lar to Obama’s ef­forts at the White House cor­re­spon­dents’ din­ner.

But he went fur­ther, jok­ing that he wouldn’t be hav­ing a drink be­cause of his ‘Morn­ing Ire­land’ in­ter­view – “Thanks, Dr Brian Cowen ... and Si­mon Coveney.”

He slagged his own love of a good photo op­por­tu­nity, say­ing he was get­ting ad­vice from Bono on ton­ing down life as a celebrity.

And he noted how a pre­vi­ous po­lit­i­cal edi­tor of the ‘Ir­ish Times’ had a good re­la­tion­ship with Enda Kenny, adding that he looked for­ward to build­ing a good re­la­tion­ship with the news­pa­pers that peo­ple ac­tu­ally read.

His dis­ci­ples were rolling in the aisles but Mr Varad­kar wasn’t hang­ing around for the plau­dits.

Af­ter all, he had to be up early for that RTÉ in­ter­view, where he ef­fec­tively ar­tic­u­lated the gen­eral view of Ge­orge Hook.

Less than 10 min­utes later, New­stalk tweeted that the broad­caster had been sus­pended.

Then all the Fine Gael TDs and sen­a­tors were brought to­gether for a ‘team-build­ing’ ses­sion that in­volved solv­ing puz­zles.

I’m told it started out as a race but by the end they all had to work to­gether to un­lock a box. “Ev­ery­body was a win­ner,” said one min­is­ter out of Si­mon Coveney’s earshot.

There was still time for a press con­fer­ence and an oblig­a­tory pho­to­graph with a bride. We can only hope that he is able to stick the pace be­cause the real work starts when the Dáil comes back.

Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar meets with newly-weds Ian and Eleanor Walsh from Kil­ma­cow, Co Kilkenny on the fi­nal day of the Fine Gael think-in at the Minella Ho­tel, Clon­mel, Co Tip­per­ary. Photo: Mark Con­dren

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