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In the goldfish bowl of the Taoiseach’s office, it was clear Varadkar’s focus had drifted

We were all waiting, says one Government insider, like waiting for a kettle to boil, when it wasn’t plugged in

Reading it back now, the coverage of Leo Varadkar’s election as Taoiseach seems impossibly optimistic.

“Even at a time of scepticism about politics, Varadkar enjoys widespread goodwill,” an Irish Times editorial noted.

His election marked “a generational shift that reflects an increasingly liberal and diverse country”, the Financial Times said.

“He represents a modern, diverse and inclusive Ireland and speaks for it like no other,” said his predecessor Enda Kenny.


And Varadkar was different. Not just young, gay, mixed race – but as a politician, he was different. Before he became Taoiseach, Irish Times political research found many voters thought there was something “different” about him. He wasn’t really like a politician at all. He tells it as it is. For a politician on the up in an anti-political age, this was a priceless identity to have.

It couldn’t last, of course. Once you’re Taoiseach for a few years, most voters will see that you are, after all, a politician. It sort of comes with the territory. But Varadkar’s novelty, and the wave of goodwill (and good press) that marked the beginning of his premiership carried him through the Brexit wars. He ran a hard line with the UK, annoying the British government, which had expected the Republic to be an ally against the EU, and the Conservative-supporting press, something that did his domestic popularity no harm at all. The approval ratings soared.

As successive British governments tied themselves up in knots, Varadkar stuck to Ireland’s two priorities – avoiding a hard border in Ireland, and maintaining Ireland’s unencumbered place in the EU’s single market – and in the end, achieved them. Meanwhile, the domestic economy continued to hum, as bumper corporation tax revenues accelerated. It wasn’t all plain sailing of course; the minority government faced many hiccups. But with a strong economy, a successfully managed Brexit and the achievement of abortion reform, Fine Gael approached the 2020 general election in pretty good shape.

It was a disaster. Elections are about the future and Varadkar proved an unconvincing salesman for Fine Gael’s version of the future. Sinn Féin soared during the campaign, while both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael suffered significant losses. They came together in a historic Coalition (with the Green Party) that brought the two parties whose rivalry had defined Irish politics for a century – but the move was seen by many voters as borne of desperation to keep Sinn Féin out of power. In some respects it was. But it also signalled an acknowledgment that the two old rivals were now just different parts of essentially the same political force. As such, it represented a historic realignment of Irish politics. It is a significant part of Varadkar’s legacy.

But it did not represent a point of departure for Varadkar to the next stage of his career. In fact, neither Varadkar nor his party really came to terms with the result, or fully interrogated the campaign and communications misjudgments that had led to it. It was almost as if they did not want to know why voters had rejected Varadkar. Even recently, the Taoiseach privately confessed he did not know what went wrong.

What was needed, in the wake of that reverse, was a new Varadkar 2.0 when he took over again in the Taoiseach’s office in December 2022 – a more mature, aware version of the youngest Taoiseach ever, with a clear view of what his country and party needed in the post-pandemic era. Within Fine Gael, it was keenly anticipated the return of Varadkar as Taoiseach would herald a revival in the party’s stuttering poll numbers – and that his own approval ratings would improve. They were all waiting for something to happen. But it didn’t.

We were all waiting for the take-off, says one Government insider. It was like waiting for a kettle to boil. We kept waiting for it. It’s coming, it’s coming. But it never came.

Turns out the kettle wasn’t plugged in. Varadkar was not the same person that had ascended to the Taoiseach’s office in 2017 – or even that left it in 2020. Since coming out as a gay man in 2015, Varadkar’s life had changed. Of course it had. He had an active social life, a partner whose focus was not on politics and who seemed to resent some of its intrusions and – above all perhaps – a growing realisation there was more to life than politics.

For someone who had – since his early 20s at least – been eating, drinking and sleeping politics, this was a big change to his outlook. And in the goldfish bowl of the Taoiseach’s office, it was becoming increasingly apparent. Colleagues commented privately that his focus and engagement on the job were not what they once were. He wasn’t quite just going through the motions; and it was hard to put your finger on something he did or didn’t do. But it was clear to his party and Government colleagues he was not as totally and obsessively devoted to politics as he once was. For more than a year now, that subject has hummed around the inner circle of Government. Just what, insiders asked, is going on with Leo?

These were the “political and personal” factors that came together in the Taoiseach’s mind in recent months – the anaemic performance of his party in the opinion polls and his own growing sense of having no more to give to the job – and led to his decision to leave.

In Brussels on Thursday and Friday, for his last EU summit, he was keen to talk about the agenda before EU leaders: demands for a ceasefire in Gaza, aid for Ukraine, defence co-operation. Predictably, the questions were nearly all about his departure. You could tell he was weary with the whole circus; relieved at the prospect, finally, of escape.

“He’s exhausted,” says one of the colleagues who knows him best. “Just exhausted.” His snippy responses suggested how all that was manifesting itself in his mind: I’m done with this. So done with this.

The sheer mental and physical stamina required to be taoiseach is very often overlooked. And yet for that reason, it is usually people who are unusually tough and resilient who get to be taoiseach. They normally go on for as long as humanly possible; some inadvisedly so. Varadkar was, certainly, an unusual Taoiseach. And so was his leaving of it.

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