Leo Varadkar likes to present himself as a young, modern political leader. But it's all spin.
Leo Varadkar likes to present himself as a young, modern political leader. Just like other ‘handsome’, ‘dynamic’ figures such as Trudeau in Canada and Macron in France.
In fact, he has put considerable resources into a PR machine to fashion this image.
He has set up a new ‘strategic communications’ unit – at taxpayers’ expense. It is headed up by John Concannon, who organised the state’s commemoration of the 1916 rebellion and developed the tourist image of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Varadkar’s key advisor is John Carroll, who used to run the Public Relations Institute. Both of these figures are backed up by a full team of spin doctors. And to complement the image making team, there is a hack academic from TCD, Patrick Geoghan, who will script Varadkar’s speeches.
The fruit of all these labours is apparent in the images that have beamed across the Atlantic from a visit to Canada. The press is full of photos of Varadkar, in casual attire with his ‘dashing doctor boyfriend’ at the front of a gay pride parade in Toronto.
Behind the obsessive focus on PR there is a deliberate political strategy.
Fine Gael – and Fianna Fail- know that they have lost about a third of the Irish electorate because of the scars left behind by the Celtic Tiger crash. The two and a half party system, whereby either FF or FG could rely on a pathetic Labour Party to prop them up, has broken down.
Unlike other countries, the trajectory away from the political establishment has been predominantly to the left. There is no far right party to mop up the discontent.
Fianna Fail’s response has been the adopt a ‘pretend left’ language – even while they support Fine Gael.
Fine Gael’s new strategy, however, is to repeatedly attack the radical left, even while they don a PR image of being modern, hip and liberal. They hope to win away white collar workers from any attraction to the left.
Their problem is that while ‘spin’ may work to create a tourist brand like the Wild Atlantic Way, it cannot disguise political realities that clash with the happy, clappy imagery.
Varadkar’s liberalism, for example, is skin deep. He may walk in gay pride marches today – but he has also spoken out against gay people having a right to adopt children.
Even Trudeau – another PR fanatic – had to remind him that he should acknowledge the right of a woman to control her own fertility. Varadkar will try to introduce some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the world – which is hardly in keeping with his image as a cosmopolitan liberal.
The appeal to the young, cannot disguise the fact that Varadkar presides over a state that officially promotes pay discrimination against new entrants. According this creed, younger teachers or nurses can be paid a lower rate for doing the same job as those recruited before 2011.
Nor can PR imagery hide the terrible effects of Fine Gael’s market fundamentalism. They have repeatedly claimed that the housing crisis was caused by ‘insufficient supply’. But when proposals are made to build council housing, they cry that they cannot not interfere with the market. The result is the worst housing crisis ever experienced by the state.
The clash between the reality of social suffering and Varadkar’s image-making machine is already becoming evident.
If he wants a foretaste of the future, he should look to his French model politician, Macron.
A few months ago, this PR mannequin swept the board in French elections by presenting himself as a young, dynamic ‘outsider’. Today, his support base has collapsed and his poll ratings are less than those of the hated Hollande at the similar stage.
As the reality of Irish society pieces through the carefully constructed PR machine, the same fate awaits Leo Varadkar.