String of political departures in the UK and Republic leaves politics in a malaise

Varadkar may have ‘seen the writing on the wall’ for his party while in Britain the Tories, in particular, have relinquished all hope

This year ought to be a genuinely galvanising period in the politics of the west. Leo Varadkar’s surprise announcement yesterday that he is stepping down as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael is one part of this. A leadership contest looms while local, European and general elections are also on their way. The United Kingdom is waiting for prime minister Rishi Sunak to name the date of this year’s general election (most likely this autumn) and a Joe Biden vs Donald Trump showdown will come to a head in the US election this November.

Despite all of this excitement, it is hard to shake a larger sense of malaise that has taken over in the atmosphere. Far from an energised electorate, this current moment is wracked by stasis. Perhaps Varadkar’s acknowledgment that he is no longer “the best person for that job” is evidence enough of a serious logjam in the Irish Government. The poor turnout for the referendums earlier this month was further proof of concept: the showing by the electorate — and mild humiliation for the Government — was not evidence of a country exactly excited by the lure of the polls.

And this generalised lack of interest is not shown just by voter apathy. Politicians themselves seem unmoved by the moment: of course, it is not just Varadkar who is stepping away from the front line but 10 other Fine Gael TDs too. This does not suggest a party that is particularly happy with itself, but instead a weary force dragging its heels into the second half of an already difficult decade.

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It is perhaps not odd for a party to lose a bit of verve after so many years in office. In Britain, this feeling is somehow even more stark. Former prime minister Theresa May announced last week that she would not be standing for election again, bringing the total number of Conservatives not seeking re-election to an eye-watering 62. As in the Republic, the reasons for stepping back from frontline politics vary: increasingly toxic public discourse; simple matters of age and health; in the UK specifically a fear of electoral wipeout. But the individual reasons are secondary to the compound effect of a slew of resignations — the Conservatives and Fine Gael look like parties with a rather deep morale problem, a notable dearth of energy.


Varadkar may have “seen the writing on the wall” for his party, as broadcaster Matt Cooper put it on Wednesday. But it seems that across the water in Britain the Conservatives, in particular, have relinquished all hope. Few think they can win, least of all the Conservatives themselves. And so Britain — as it awaits an election, still hazy on the details — is locked in purgatory. Until Sunak announces the date we are in the valedictory period of the Tory government finally browbeaten by 14 years in power, the internecine warfare of Brexit, lurches rightward and back to centre, dalliances with total madness under Liz Truss, both scandal and vindication during Covid-19 and now a slow limp towards presumed defeat under Rishi Sunak. Taken together, it almost provokes sympathy.

Does all this point to a bigger flaw that sits at the heart of the democratic system, at least in its current design? As elections loom, governments enter proxy-campaign mode, with limited ability or compunction to actually govern. This is a disaster for Britain, a low-level-crisis-wracked country with bad services, expensive groceries, cancelled infrastructure projects and a National Health Service in disarray. That Sunak has refused to rip the Band-Aid off and go into an election is causing disquiet. Even the Conservative party-friendly newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, is upset: “I don’t think I have ever seen the electorate treated with such contempt by those who claim to have our best interests at heart,” writes columnist Suzanne Moore.

Thank goodness that the politics of the UK and Ireland — for all the malaise — are comparatively bland compared to the United States. Ireland may lack a genuine status-quo-busting force and the election in the UK looks like a foregone conclusion. But the roster of options facing the American voter is bleak indeed: a battle between an older and madder-than-ever Donald Trump and Joe Biden, described by a special counsel report in February as a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory”. Trump is mendacious, has laid seeds of distrust in democracy, is a bullish populist and a far worse option than Biden. But the bar is low.

For now, in the UK, the US and the Republic it feels as though the voter is locked in a holding pen as we wait to see the political contours for the second half of this decade. That these three inflection points in western politics are arriving at roughly the same time only entrenches a generalised sense of anxious limbo. In contrast, the decisiveness of Varadkar’s departure – unexpected though it may have been — is precisely the energy politics needs.