Leo Varadkar What does he stand for?
Being young, articulate and media-savvy has advantages in a grey political environment. But it also carries risks, as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is discovering. During the silly season, photo opportunities with foreign leaders sparked criticism that his approach embodied style over substance. It is an issue he must confront. Just what are his plans, and what effect will they have on different parts of society?
During his first 100 days, Varadkar concentrated on necessary house keeping: shoring up relations with Independents in Government; reaffirming a confidence-and-supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil and rewarding his supporters. There were few speeches on fiscal or social policy, other than echoes from a successful leadership campaign, when he promised to favour those who “get up early in the morning”.
The Taoiseach has a reputation for being hard-edged and conservative on economic issues. He has shown admirable determination in seeking a soft post-Brexit Border. But detail is frequently lacking and policy brush strokes are too broad. Three guiding principles outlined to party members this week provide an example: everyone, including children, is to be given an equal opportunity; all parts of the country are to share in recovery and prosperity and a second chance is to be offered to those who need it. Who could quibble with that egalitarian manifesto? Quite what it means and how to pay for it are not addressed.
Delivering equal opportunities for children – a vitally important aim – would require very large social and educational investments, particularly in deprived areas. As for spreading prosperity, that project would require a revised spatial strategy and considerable resources. At present, the budgetary situation does not allow for such outlays. So what are Varadkar’s immediate objectives? Encouraging growth and enterprise and cutting the tax rate for middle-income earners are regularly mentioned. Is that it?
Having shelved Fine Gael’s commitment to abolish the universal social charge by offering to amalgamate it with PRSI over a number of years, he recognised that health, housing and infrastructural problems will not be solved by this Government and passed the worrisome parcel to Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe. Further insurance was sought by asking Minister for Education Richard Bruton to put flesh on the bones of his vision for “a Republic of Opportunity”. These were clever political moves. But they show Varadkar to be as much a captive of his party as its leader.
At a time when Fine Gael has to expand its electoral appeal if it is to resist the challenges posed by both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, clarity on party policy is lacking. The Taoiseach exhibited drive and imagination in becoming leader of Fine Gael. Now he must set out what kind of society he wants and how it can be funded.