Leo Varadkar interview: ‘Government could end in eight weeks’ time…before a Brexit deal’

 


The Islandman: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets the pupils of Coláiste Naomh Eoin in Inis Meáin on the Aran Islands. Photo: Tony Gavin
The Islandman: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets the pupils of Coláiste Naomh Eoin in Inis Meáin on the Aran Islands. Photo: Tony Gavin

Time and again, Leo Varadkar insists he does not want an election. He’s almost indignant at a suggestion that events of recent days are all part of a cunning plan to cause one.

The letter sent to Micheál Martin was actually penned by the Taoiseach himself.

“They’re always better when I write them myself,” he laughs while preparing to sit down for an interview with the Irish Independent.

But Mr Martin didn’t see any funny side. The Fianna Fáil leader has already made it clear that he won’t even talk about a new confidence and supply agreement until after Budget 2019.

The tax cuts, pension increases, infrastructure investment, childcare funding and ramping up of house construction proposed by the Taoiseach have been dismissed as the kite-flying efforts of somebody working on a manifesto.

It’s an accusation that gets Mr Varadkar very animated: “Why can’t they accept it? If it’s in the interests of the Irish public? If it’s a good policy platform? If they agree with all of the content, why not accept it? It’s not a manifesto for an election, which would be a five-year plan. This is what we’d like to do if we can have an extension to 2020.”

It’s all lining up to be a long two months of political games, as both sides tip-toe around the cliff edge.

Fianna Fáil says business as usual will continue until all elements of the Budget are passed, which is likely to happen in November or December – but that “eleventh hour” approach won’t wash with Fine Gael.

“It’s about removing uncertainty of a snap election for the Government and the Opposition. It’s September now so what he [Micheál Martin] is saying is that this Government could end in eight weeks’ time, potentially before we have a withdrawal agreement on Brexit finalised,” says Mr Varadkar.

Asked if he believes Mr Martin is stringing him along, Mr Varadkar replies: “Maybe that’s his strategy. I don’t know. I’m being upfront here. I’m not playing games.”

His thinking goes even deeper than just what is contained in the letter.

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Mr Varadkar also reveals that if he is able to stay on as Taoiseach he’ll reshuffle his Cabinet next summer.

“The natural time to do a reshuffle in the course of the Government would be after the local and European elections next May. In the normal cycle of politics, that’s generally when it happens.”

Two members of Cabinet who are likely to survive are the ministers who seem to be continually in the eye of a storm: Eoghan Murphy and Simon Harris.

Was it a mistake to appoint the two youngest and most inexperienced ministers to housing and health?

“They may be the youngest but I think they are also among the most capable. Once upon a time I was the youngest in the cabinet and I think it’s a good thing that there are now people in the Cabinet who are younger than me,” Mr Varadkar argues. “It’s right to challenge people who are young and able with difficult briefs. I don’t think any reasonable person holds either Simon Harris or Eoghan Murphy individually accountable for everything that goes wrong in either the health service or housing.”

Mr Murphy is facing a no-confidence motion when the Dáil resumes, but his boss is not stressed by the prospect.

As for keeping the Independent members of the Government on board until summer 2020, Mr Varadkar has already met with Denis Naughten, Shane Ross and Katherine Zappone. By his account, they seem positive.

But, perhaps taking no chances, he’s going to give Finian McGrath and John Halligan a free ride if they take part in protests against the visit of Donald Trump.

“If they want to take part in protests, I’ll understand that. That’s just part of the diversity of the government that we have. It’s not a bad thing sometimes that they bring these perspectives to the table.”

Back in 2017, Mr Varadkar said he was “not sure what purpose” a visit by the US president would serve. He claims not to remember the comment.

“I’m not really sure what I meant by that… there is certainly a purpose in it,” he says now.

“America is a close friend and ally, but relations are not as close as they used to be,” Mr Varadkar adds, citing a desire to discuss the real impact of Brexit with Mr Trump.

Of course, unless Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil sort out a new deal, Mr Trump’s arrival could coincide with a November election.

Irish Independent

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