Leo Varadkar struggles to reap Brexit dividend

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DUBLIN — This was meant to be Leo Varadkar’s date with destiny.

After successfully steering Ireland through years of high-stakes and nail-biting Brexit uncertainty, Saturday’s election was the moment when a grateful nation could finally reward their modern and telegenic prime minister at the ballot box.

Instead, the prime minister could face being kicked out of office, after an election campaign that has proved much more of a struggle than he bargained for. Even he admits his party are the “underdogs.”

Internationally, the Irish prime minister is something of a star. Irish voters are by and large pleased with the job he has done of holding Ireland’s corner against British efforts to divide and conquer the EU27. The Brexit outcome also avoided a no-deal exit that would have hammered the Irish economy and destabilized the fragile peace on the island.

But the Brexit saga has taken up much of the government’s bandwidth, leaving domestic problems to fester and his Fine Gael party vulnerable. Brexit kudos appears to be counting for little in a campaign in which voters have turned their attention homewards. The result: Fine Gael has sagged badly in the polls.

“I do believe we are catching up. This election is winnable, and it’s all to play for. In many ways it is the most important in a generation” — Leo Varadkar 

Addressing a gathering of supporters in the final push ahead of the vote, Varadkar said the election had been called in a “window of opportunity” before a March European Council summit to agree an EU position on trade talks with the U.K. that could make or break the Irish economy.

“I do believe we are catching up. This election is winnable, and it’s all to play for. In many ways it is the most important in a generation … If Brexit was a football match, it’s probably only half time,” Varadkar told the crowd, pushing the message that voters should stick with the “tried and trusted team” to lead the country.

But the prime minister told POLITICO that Brexit came up “not a lot” among voters he spoke to, with most focussed on domestic concerns.

That’s understandable, said foreign minister and deputy leader Simon Coveney, though he countered that the U.K.’s final exit from the EU does not mean Brexit is done.

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“I think a lot of people want to move on from Brexit at this stage to talk about other things and prioritize other things,” he said. “Unfortunately I don’t think we have that luxury, Brexit is going to dominate Irish politics for at least the next 12 months, and people have to decide what team they want leading us through all of those dangers and pressures.”

Fragile coalition

Since its formation in 2016, Varadkar’s liberal-conservative Fine Gael party has relied on traditional rivals Fianna Fáil to stay in power. In a “confidence and supply” arrangement, the main opposition party had agreed to abstain or back key motions to prevent the government from falling, in exchange for implementing agreed policies.

It was an unstable arrangement. Relations between the parties broke down at several points, threatening a government collapse.

But Brexit changed everything. As the EU-U.K. talks intensified, the Irish state went into emergency mode. Almost the entire Irish parliament formed a united front in backing the negotiation efforts, and Fianna Fáil agreed that while the national interest was at stake the government could not be allowed to fall.

Varadkar enjoyed a surge of personal popularity in October after a breakthrough meeting with his U.K. counterpart Boris Johnson in Liverpool.

It led to a Brexit deal that was widely seen as a victory for Dublin, ensuring a trade border would not be drawn across the island after Brexit — Ireland’s red line in the negotiations — and that any checks would take place in the sea crossing between Britain and Ireland instead. Varadkar’s popularity rose to 51 percent from 36 percent in May in an Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll. Satisfaction with the government rose 11 points.

But paradoxically, the moment of Varadkar’s triumph also meant that the coalition that Brexit had held together began to crumble. In the background were a slew of voter concerns. Health and infrastructure services were straining to cope with a growing population. Meanwhile, a severe housing shortage has caused record homelessness and forced even well-paid professionals to live with their parents or in tiny bedsits.

Left-wing opposition parties pushed a series of no-confidence motions in the health and housing ministers, repeatedly cornering a reluctant Fianna Fáil into siding with and saving the government.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald participate during the final TV leaders’ debate | Niall Carson – Pool/Getty Images| Niall Carson – Pool/Getty Images

On January 14, Varadkar bowed to the inevitable, calling a snap election he hoped would return him with a strong mandate to seamlessly continue the next phase of Brexit.

Star power

Despite being in power for two-and-a-half years, Varadkar has never led a general election campaign. He took over from Enda Kenny after winning a Fine Gael leadership contest in 2017. His campaign presented him as the type of candidate Ireland has rarely seen. Young, fit and charismatic, as well as gay and mixed-race: supporters hoped he could be the face of modern Ireland. Ireland’s Emmanuel Macron, or Justin Trudeau.

“We are a young country, we’ve got a growing population on our island, and we are confident in our place in the world,” he said in his leadership campaign video, which told the story of his roots as the son of an Indian doctor and an Irish nurse.

He does have a touch of star power. POLITICO saw the prime minster stop traffic with the hubbub caused by his arrival in Kinsale, a County Cork town in Ireland’s southwest, where one onlooker gasped, “He’s so handsome!”

The campaign was hit by early mishaps over a mishandled commemoration that undermined Fine Gael’s patriotic credentials, and an incident in which a homeless man was seriously hurt when his tent was cleared by machinery while he was still inside it. The symbolism could hardly have been worse for a party trying to shake blame for the housing crisis: A poster of Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy was pictured overlooking the scene.

Yet in general, campaign organization has largely been slick, with no major debate disasters, and a tick-tock of daily events, policy announcements and message coordination.

Nevertheless, local issues have entirely crowded out international matters such as Brexit. On the campaign trail, several voters have taken the opportunity to politely challenge Varadkar over what they see as his government’s failure to deliver.

Perhaps more than anything else, voters seem to want a change.

“There’s a load of boys and girls who have no schools to go to in September,” one older lady told the prime minister on the main street of Ballincollig, County Cork, adding that her grandchildren were living with her due to a shortage of affordable housing.

“Nothing is being done. So we’ll have to probably vote for somebody else,” she added.

Perhaps more than anything else, voters seem to want a change. Fine Gael has been in power for nine years now, and a win would be the first time in the party’s history that it has achieved a third consecutive term in office.

Coveney hopes that with key negotiations on the shape of Brexit yet to be had, voters will eventually opt for the “trusted” option. “Believe me when I say it, we can turn this thing around,” Coveney told a crowd of supporters in Ballincollig, “I’ve never been involved in an election that is as volatile as this one.”

After Saturday, Varadkar will discover whether he is right.

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