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