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‘The novelty has worn off’: Leo Varadkar’s challenging second term

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Leo Varadkar will take the helm of Ireland’s government again on Saturday as part of an unprecedented coalition reshuffle that sees him return to the role of taoiseach that he held from 2017 until 2020.

The 43-year-old, who seemed to channel the zeitgeist of a country that has seen rapid social change when he became the first openly gay premier and the first of Indian heritage, will face a challenge to reinvigorate his Fine Gael party and convince voters that the government can turn round a profound housing crisis before elections due by early 2025.

“The novelty has worn off,” said Gail McElroy, a political-science professor at Trinity College Dublin. “But he’s also more experienced.”

Days before taking the baton from outgoing taoiseach Micheál Martin as part of the coalition agreement, Varadkar, now trade minister, was forced to defend his judgment after a video of him in a gay nightclub embracing a man who appeared not to be his long-term partner was shared on social media.

The video, since removed from TikTok, sparked a debate on politicians’ privacy and social media regulation. It also caused disquiet in his party months after he was spared a criminal investigation into his leak of a confidential government document to a friend in 2019. He apologised for that scandal but denied wrongdoing.

“Everyone makes errors in judgment,” Varadkar said this week, after the video went viral. “But I hope that when it comes to the big calls . . . I’ve made the right decisions.”

Varadkar, who was obsessed with becoming taoiseach from a young age, proved the comeback kid in 2020, striking a job-share deal with Martin despite having led Fine Gael to an electoral drubbing.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the two parties that have dominated the history of Ireland but hailed from opposing sides of the civil war a century ago, sealed an unlikely coalition pact with the Green party, after election winner Sinn Féin failed to form a government.

Sinn Féin, a pro-reunification nationalist party, has surged to become Ireland’s most popular party, fuelled by its promises of change and to fix a crisis in housing that is pushing as many as seven out of 10 young people to consider emigrating.

“[Varadkar] has a big test on his hands to make Fine Gael popular again [before the next elections],” said Gary Murphy, politics professor at Dublin City University. According to a poll this month by Ireland Thinks, a market research company, Fine Gael had 23 per cent support — above Fianna Fáil’s 17 per cent but below 34 per cent for Sinn Féin.

The new taoiseach, a medical doctor, is, however, expected only to perform minimal cabinet surgery. Martin is expected to move to foreign affairs, replacing Simon Coveney, who is likely to switch to Varadkar’s old portfolio.

But not refreshing a “competent but unloved” coalition — many ministers have been in government for years and Varadkar himself has clocked up a dozen — could prove a mistake, Murphy said.

“The verdict remains out on Varadkar. As leader of the party, his job is to win elections,” he said.

Varadkar will also have to navigate a deep cost of living crisis although Ireland has stashed away €6bn from record tax receipts to give it the financial firepower to fund energy and welfare handouts.

As taoiseach in 2019, a meeting between Varadkar and then UK prime minister Boris Johnson helped secure agreement on a post-Brexit trade framework for Northern Ireland, although that deal is now in crisis.

Varadkar has also expressed support for Irish reunification.

Philip Ryan, political editor at Independent newspapers and co-author of a 2018 biography of Varadkar, A Very Modern Taoiseach, said the incoming premier had championed policies — such as ensuring mandatory sick pay, increasing the minimum wage and ensuring restaurant staff received tips — that challenged perceptions that he is rightwing.

Varadkar is not a backslapping style of politician. But Ryan called him “a very robust debater” always ready to listen and ask questions, who “does crowdsource for opinions”.

Once an opponent of gay marriage and abortion, causes that he later went on to support prominently, Varadkar “can reinvent himself”, Ryan said. “He will probably have to, given the challenges facing him ahead.”

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