Varadkar's turnaround: Fine Gael's pyrrhic victory?
Illustration: Naomi Worth

Leo Varadkar, Fine Gael leader and current Tánaiste, has experienced a remarkable turnaround in political fortunes since February’s general election. On June 26th after months of negotiations, Fine Gael agreed to enter government with historic rivals Fianna Fáil, propped up by the Greens. Varadkar’s position in government was secure with the guarantee of high office again soon.

Rotating Taoisigh, rotating fortunes 

After finishing third in February’s election, it’s unlikely that many people expected Fine Gael to enter its third consecutive term in government. Leo Varadkar’s temporary demotion to Tánaiste is part of the new Programme for Government— a historic, rainbow coalition between the two parties that have opposed each other since the Irish Civil War. As part of the five-year deal, the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agreed to ‘rotate’ the office of Taoiseach between them. As Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin left the Áras following his appointment as the new Taoiseach by the President, Leo Varadkar already knew he’d be back in the top job soon enough. A political turnaround of some magnitude for a leader whose party finished third in the election. 

Varadkar leaves the Taoiseach’s office, which he will regain in December 2022, with record approval ratings of 75%. Statistics like this stand in direct contrast to the performance of him and his party in February’s general election, when Fine Gael fell to third place, behind both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. After this performance, Mr. Varadkar remarked that “the future is about leading the party into opposition”. Deputy Fine Gael leader, Simon Coveney, spoke of the need for humility, acknowledging that people had voted for change.

Yet four months later, they joined their Civil War rivals in government for the first time— and they do so with extremely high approval ratings. Recent polling found that 72% of voters were satisfied with the Government’s performance, an astounding jump of 51 points since the previous poll in February. Varadkar’s personal approval ratings experienced a similar spike over the same period, increasing 45 points since February. This dramatic improvement of both Varadkar and his party’s poll ratings may be the latest indicator of changing ‘pandemic politics’ across the world. Having led Ireland’s initial response to the biggest public health crisis in a century may be a blessing in disguise for Leo Varadkar.

Ireland’s first case of Covid-19 was confirmed on 29 February 2020. Although Varadkar resigned as Taoiseach on February 20th following the general election, he remained in position as caretaker Taoiseach until a new government could be formed. Due to the unprecedented election result and facing a three-way split in the Dáil, the task of forming a new government took almost 140 days. As such, the responsibility for handling the first stage of the pandemic fell to Varadkar and his caretaker government, despite his resignation. A situation that required unexpected leadership in uncertain times.

Leading the response

Immediate comparisons were drawn between the actions of the Irish and UK governments, with commentators remarking a significant divergence in response to the crisis. Comparisons tended to be favourable to Varadkar; many remarked on how Ireland’s schools and childcare facilities closed on March 12th, followed by pubs, bars and restaurants three days later. Varadkar took the rare step of addressing the nation directly on March 17th, where he outlined updates on the pandemic. He received widespread praise on social media and in print for the speeches, with the New York Times declaring the speeches as being “viewed by commentators as one of the most memorable ever delivered by an Irish leader”

Varadkar also benefited from what pollsters’ term the ‘rally round the flag effect’— the observation that governments can expect to see their support increase and approval soar in times of national emergency. There was, unusually in Irish politics, consensus from all major parties on the need for strong measures to tackle Covid-19. Widespread public support for the lockdown measures also boosted Varadkar’s standing, with 75% of the public supporting the lockdown being extended in a May 3rd Red C poll.

Before being elected a TD, Varadkar had a medical background and qualified as a GP in 2010. At the height of the pandemic, he re-joined the medical register and worked one day a week as a doctor. Direct knowledge of the importance of surgical equipment, as well as an understanding of science and medicine, no doubt resulted in a familiarity with the advice given by Chief Medical Officer, Tony Holohan. 

However, it’s unfair to claim that Varadkar’s improved political image is solely down to a spirit of national unity and that he simply benefited from being in the right place at the right time. The controversies surrounding Trump in the USA and Johnson in the UK show that Covid-19 is not a guaranteed poll booster. More recently, other European leaders have begun to see a waning of national tendencies to support the incumbent during crises. In contrast to this, Fine Gael continues to be very strongly supported, suggesting that Varadkar’s personal actions, including his national lockdown response and rejoining the medical register, have found favour with the public.

What is clear is the apparent shifting in Varadkar’s political career since February, and his public image appears to be remedying. With confidence from this newfound popularity, his party entered government with historic rivals Fianna Fáil, something that many thought would be unthinkable. The Programme for Government was ratified by all groups within Fine Gael with 80% of its members voting to enter into coalition.

A week is a long time in politics

Leo Varadkar seems to be one of the lucky few world leaders to emerge from the end of phase one of the pandemic with better approval ratings than the start. Even though the turnaround in Varadkar’s approval ratings cannot be disputed, it’s much less clear how long Varadkar can bask in the sunshine. While he continues to benefit from the spirit of national solidarity visible in a national crisis, this solidarity does not typically extend beyond the immediate crisis— and can be swiftly shattered by a change in circumstances. 

As Ireland exits lockdown, the new government faces the challenge of restoring the economy. Ireland’s economy is expected to contract by 7.9% in 2020 , and unemployment was a near-record high of 26.1% in May. As the coalition government attempts to revitalise the economy, they will face a united, left-wing Sinn Féin opposition which has vowed to be the most effective in the State’s history. They have already accused Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil of seeking to maintain the status quo that they claim has failed Irish families over the past decade. The memories of Ireland’s 2008 economic collapse remain fresh in voter’s minds, and Varadkar will attempt to avoid comparisons being made between the measures he takes and the austerity policies introduced by Fianna Fáil in the aftermath of the last financial crash.

At that time, Fianna Fáil was in government and in the 2011 General Election, the party was almost wiped out and saw the worst defeat in the party’s history.  As the new Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the challenge for Varadkar is to maintain the public’s goodwill during monumental economic difficulties.

The new government has a working majority of just four in the Dáil, a precarious and delicate position for a government dealing with the biggest crisis since the Civil War. Whether this government survives long enough for Leo Varadkar to take the helm as Taoiseach again in 2022 remains to be seen. For now, Varadkar’s temporary demotion to Tánaiste and his party’s third term in government is a turnaround as unexpected as the crisis that caused it.