Varadkar’s future as leader is now no more assured than is Martin’s

This column first appeared on Broadsheet on March 15th, the day after the Sunday Times [Ireland] broke the story that the preliminary Garda inquiry into the leaking of a confidential contract by Leo Varadkar while Taoiseach had been upgraded to a criminal investigation by Garda Headquarters. Here I set out why Varadkar’s grip on the Fine Gael leadership was already starting to loosen before this story broke and why his political future may be every bit as uncertain as Micheál Martin’s. 

Over last few months I have written a lot… an awful lot… about Fianna Fáil’s existential crisis. These articles have mainly focused on the shortcomings of the leader, and Taoiseach, Micheál Martin.

This is to be expected. Even though I now find myself on the outside looking in, it is still the party I understand best, and care about most, having been a member for over 40 years.

But my instinctive focus on my former party should not detract from the problems facing Fine Gael – or, more specifically, those facing its leader, An Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar.

Before yesterday’s Sunday Times front page story about the Tánaiste being the subject of criminal investigation, Varadkar’s position looked unassailable. But looks can be deceiving.

The news that Gardaí think there is something to see in Leo’s nothing to see here sharing of a confidential document has set many folks to wonder if he can continue as leader.

But the trouble didn’t start this weekend. Yesterday’s revelation has only added to the numbers who were already muttering ominously about Varadkar.

Questioning the durability of Varadkar’s leadership might have seemed counter intuitive up to Saturday afternoon. Afterall, look at all the things that Varadkar had going right for him.

Though he isn’t happy at not being Taoiseach, he still holds the post of Tánaiste. A position he has re-designed in such a way as to make him co-Taoiseach in all but name. He has all the trappings of the top job and a great deal of the hard power that goes along with it too.

Standing aside as Taoiseach was the temporary price Varadkar was willing to pay to get Micheál Martin to put an already enfeebled Fianna Fáil into a more parlous position. The big payoff for this temporary arrangement is that Varadkar can now portray the next election as a stark binary choice between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, with Fianna Fáil self-relegating to the sidelines.

Besides Varadkar knows that he will be Taoiseach again from December 2022 and that the political history books will show Martin’s tenure as a brief blip between Leo’s two terms as Taoiseach.

Add to this the fact that Fine Gael has been jockeying with Sinn Féin for top place in the opinion polls with for the past nine months and that Leo’s own performance ratings have been higher than ever.

Indeed, it was this time last year when Fine Gael started to come back strongly in the polls. Leo’s first address on the pandemic, delivered on the steps of Blair House during his St Patrick’s Day visit to the White House, triggered a major reversal in his and Fine Gael’s fortunes.

Having secured only 21% at the February 8th, 2020 election, Varadkar saw his party stagnate and even slip back in some polls. The March 10th Behaviour and Attitudes poll conducted for The Sunday Times had Fine Gael still on 21%, but two Red C /Sunday Business Post polls taken in March and April, after his Blair House and follow up speeches, saw Fine Gael support soar to 35%.

Leo’s good fortune didn’t stop there. Polls taken in June, July and October had Fine Gael as high as 37% and 38%. But all good things must come to an end and so did his run of good polls. Though recent polls are not looking quite as rosy now, they still have Fine Gael in the mid to high 20’s – well above its Election 2020 figure.

But opinion polls are just opinion polls. Fine Gael TDs know they have been here before. The polls a few months out from the February 2020 election looked good too, showing Fine Gael in the high 20’s, even hitting 30%.

It was the election campaign that exposed Varadkar considerable weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Readers may recall my Stick a fork in Fine Gael, it’s done column published eleven days before the election, when I said that Fine Gael’s election was over. It was.  

This wasn’t a damascene conversion. Long before the 2020 election I said that Varadkar was out of touch with the real concerns of many voters and that Fine Gael’s poll numbers were soft.

Even before yesterday’s newspaper headlines started to circulate, many Fine Gael TDs were coming to the same conclusion.

In all probability they came to that conclusion at the election. But, just as the pandemic has compelled Fianna Fáil TDs not to metaphorically kick their leader with the child in his arms, the fact that the calls for him to go are not yet public, does not mean many are not thinking it.

Where Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meetings leak like sieves, Fine Gael’s have seemed more disciplined and tight-lipped. Thus, the sudden appearance of very pointed comments from former ministers, not to mention the daily online musings of the Samuel Pepys of Greystones, Minister Simon Harris, take on a significance that runs beyond their content.

And while they may not presage a heave in the short run, they do point to many in Fine Gael imagining a political world without Leo.

This development may well be linked to the increasing speculation that there will be a Fianna Fáil heave sooner rather than later. Though Fine Gael TDs are confident that Varadkar would easily brush Martin aside at an election and focus solely on Mary Lou McDonald… what happens if a Fianna Fáil, no longer led by Martin, re-connects with its core beliefs and chooses not to walk meekly to its own demise just to satisfy Fine Gael?

Fine Gael TDs know a busted leader when they see one. Don’t forget this is the party of Dukes, Bruton, Noonan and Kenny. They know Martin’s last race as leader is run – a point I have been making here for well over a year.

While some in Fianna Fáil may still not accept this basic fact, Fine Gael see that Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators will not be so quiescent as to face into another election, even a snap one, with the same leader, posters, slogan, and messaging as before.

A change in Fianna Fáil leadership, particularly a change that comes with a radical rethink of the party’s core message and identity would raise serious doubts about Varadkar’s prospects.

Even if the Garda investigation as disclosed by John Mooney in the Sunday Times does not result in a prosecution, never mind a conviction, the Leo the leaker hashtag has done real damage. The whole sorry mess stank and, as I said here at the time, raised major questions about Leo’s prudence and acumen.

As does the game playing and contrary statements on NPHET and lock down strategies. These may be calculated to politically undermine the Taoiseach, and his diminishing Health Minister, but they are also harming the whole of government, including Fine Gael.

As if all of this were not enough, Fine Gael may be about to suffer another setback as its Seanad bye-election candidate on the Agriculture Panel faces losing out to independent Unionist rival, Ian Marshall. Marshall, a former Senator, has support from a wide cross section of opposition parties, most notably Sinn Féin, and the many independents.

To be fair, Seanad by-elections do not shift leaders or destabilize governments, but they can have a political impact, especially when they go wrong. On paper, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael should have the two upcoming Seanad by-elections sown up. Combined, even without the Green Party, they have 50% of the votes.

They also have an electoral pact that shares the two vacancies between them. The two vacancies stem from the departure of a Fine Gael and a Sinn Féin Senator.

Fine Gael is running the well regarded and capable former Senator, Maria Byrne, but she very much the leader’s personal choice. This leaves Varadkar with skin in this game. Losing the seat will be more than just the loss of a Fine Gael seat, it will be a loss of face by Leo.

To add salt to Leo’s wounds, Fianna Fáil’s candidate on the Industry & Commerce panel, Gerry Horkan, is seen as a safer bet. He has two advantages over his Fine Gael colleague. First, he faces a less unified opposition and second, he was the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party members’ choice, defeating others thought to be favoured by Martin.

It never had to be like this. In a column here last November I urged both Taoiseach and Tánaiste to facilitate the election of two Senators, one unionist and one nationalist. This would have fixed the June 2020 mistake, when two Northern Irish Senators were not included in Taoiseach’s 11 nominees.

I know many across the political divide contacted the two leaders before my column appeared, asking them to seriously consider this idea. Sadly, neither man acted upon it.

While at least one of them will rue the day they didn’t, it is very possible that both men will soon have plenty of free time to reflect on this and other mistakes.

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