Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
It’s pretty standard now for a certain type of social media denizen to declare that Leo Varadkar is “an Irish Tory”. You can almost feel the glow of smug satisfaction come from the Twitter feed as you just know that the poor creature who typed it thinks he’s the first person to come up with that piece of sharp political commentary.
“See what I did there? I called him a tory! But not in England! Here!”
He (and it’s nearly always a he) is the sort of person who tells you on the doorstep during a canvass that “if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it!”, again certain that you’ve never heard that before. Often they genuinely believe they’ve come up with the pronouncement themselves. You smile politely, and know to move on.
As it happens, Leo Varadkar would never get past a modern Tory selection convention. He’s just too pro-European and also too pro-foreign aid.
It’s true that they’d love his Indian heritage and his sexual orientation, despite what the left say about them. The British left love striking a pose about women and minority rights, whereas the right just cuts to the chase and makes them prime minister. Twice.
The first black British prime minister will probably be a Tory too.
But Leo Varadkar would not find a comfortable home in the Tories for one other reason.
He’s too conservative. That’s what people often forget about the British Conservative party. It’s not a conservative party in any real ideological sense.
If anything, it’s been a radical party of right wing economic and political change.
It wasn’t always that way, of course. From 1945 until 1979 the Tories were a party of caution, letting Labour do a lot of the running on changing things with innovations like the National Health Service and the welfare state, and keeping what quietly worked.
The one really radical thing the Tories did, ironically, was to take Britain into Europe, God bless them.
It was only when Mrs Thatcher came to power that the party became a vehicle for rapid restructuring of society with privatisation and trades union reform.
There’s even an argument that by introducing competition over quality control into the television market with the 1990 broadcasting act she drove large elements of TV into the gutter. Yes, it’s true: you can argue that Mrs Thatcher is indirectly responsible for vajazzling.
Compare that radicalism to our Taoiseach and his government and you’ll see a clear ideological divide.
Thatcher wanted change: it’s debatable whether it was good change or bad, but change it was, and heaps of it.
Scrutinise Leo’s approach and you come away with the clear impression that he’s a Tory but of the 19th century variety. A believer in the status quo, of stasis even, and of only the bare minimum change necessary to avoid political defeat.
It’s the common thread, the unifying value that unites his government’s approach to every thing.
Look at housing: they reckon that essentially the private sector will fix it. Nothing radical there.
Health? As before. More money, action plans, all the usual. Take on the vested interests and the work practices and the lack of joined up thinking? Nah.
Corporate taxation? Just keep banging on about 12.5% because we either have no other idea or are afraid of having to explain a new idea to our own voters.
The future of Europe: no alternative plan to President Macron, just oppose change for as long as possible, then buckle for a few quid?
Political reform: Seanad reform seems to be a rotting carcass abandoned in some shallow political grave, and elected mayors? Apparently not possible before 2024, which means that Fine Gael now tasks meaningful reform of local government as being a task on a timescale more complex that either the defeat of the Third Reich or the United States’ landing of a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.
Both already have in-depth proposals to implement sitting in ministerial drawers and both suffering from that old “Yes, Minister” trick of having each minister pretend he’s the first person to ever consider these issues.
Ah, but what about abortion? The government that finally grasps the proverbial, surely? Yes, it is happening on Leo’s watch, but the ball (or Indiana Jones boulder, depending on where one stands) started rolling on that before he became leader of the country.
He’s just shepherding it through, in the Varadkar manner: minimum change necessary to make the issue go away.
Like most of his generation, Leo has probably seen that famous scene in “The West Wing” where President Bartlet is lambasted by his chief of staff for not being true to his radical self, and proposing a new strategy of letting “Bartlet be Bartlet”.
The problem for Leo is that it is looking more and more apparent that there is no true radical self being held in check by caution. Is the reality that Leo Varadkar has no interest in being an Irish Attlee or Thatcher or Macron? That he’s comfortable not going down as a great reformer like Lemass but is happy to have just been another guy who happened to be Taoiseach for a few years? Then maybe off to Brussels as the first Irish president of the commission or council?
Nothing more than a good tinkering and a new one of those foldly backdrops one launches everything with these days, I suppose. Maybe with another new quango, logo and name in Irish that we all can’t remember. Beats causing a row.
That’s not to say he’s a bad person. He’s not.
Those of us who want radical change in Irish politics have to be very careful not to project onto new political leaders our own aspirations and hopes where they don’t really exist.
Leo’s Fine Gael is the party of “Easy, now.”
You can’t dismiss it as an unreasonable approach to government. The argument for government based on “first, do no harm” and follow it up with “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is as legitimate an approach to running a country as any other. Other countries are locking people up and rigging elections and rewriting history and closing down newspapers and independent TV channels.
Most of our problems aren’t as much caused by malevolence as good old fashioned incompetence.
It could be an awful lot worse, which, incidentally, seems to be shaping up as FG’s campaign slogan going forward.
It’s becoming very likely that these guys don’t see themselves as a potentially great government, just a government that happens to be in office.
Effectively, a placeholder government.
Pretty much like Fianna Fail from 1968 to 2011.
It means that that it isn’t really fair to call Leo a modern Tory when he is, in fact, just another Fianna Fail Taoiseach of the “a nice cup of tea and a quiet sit down” variety.
Jack Lynch without the ball control. A nice man.
Or as Orwell put it: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”