Is Leo Varadkar Ireland’s Thatcher?

Leo Varadkar has been compared to the Iron Lady. But it is with Brexit that Ireland's new prime minister will find his toughest test.


Leo Varadkar: Ireland's new no-nonsense prime minister
(Image credit: Credit: Jack Taylor / Alamy Stock Photo)

For some, he is the Irish version of French president Emmanuel Macron: a dynamic young leader committed to Europe; for others, he is a dangerous right-wing ideologue "who threatens Ireland's centrist consensus", as Vincent Boland put it in the Financial Times. Leo Varadkar, Ireland's 38-year-old new leader, made international headlines when he took over as taoiseach in June this year. The gay son of an Irish mother and an Indian immigrant father, he seems to represent the coming to power of a new generation homosexuality was only decriminalised in Ireland in 1993.

In Ireland itself, the news media was more interested in Varadkar's economic policies, says Henry McDonald in The Guardian. Commentators dubbed him the "Thatcherite" candidate during his contest to lead the governing party, Fine Gael, and by extension the country. In the campaign, Varadkar characterised himself as the champion "of those who get up early in the morning" and during his time as welfare minister he was best known for initiating a crackdown on "welfare cheats".

But the ideological posturing obscures the fact that the new taoiseach is a "deeply conventional politician", says Patrick Maguire in The New Statesman. A former member of Fine Gael's youth wing, Varadkar has put in "workmanlike" but uninspired stints in previous government posts, and his battle for the Fine Gael leadership with the "starchy" housing minister, Simon Coveney, was derided as a contest "between two privileged, private-school-educated, socially awkward nerds" by the Irish Examiner newspaper.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Ireland's economy has made a "remarkable recovery" since the financial crisis, growing the fastest of any of the 19 countries in the eurozone for the past three years, says Jennifer Duggan in Time. "Construction cranes once again stipple the Dublin skyline" and Varadkar inherits an unemployment rate that has just hit a nine-year low.

Yet the new leader still faces a deeply challenging in-tray, says Maguire. He must restore order to the restive ranks of his own party and maintain the "precarious confidence and supply arrangement" with his party's ancestral enemies, Fianna Fil, that currently props up the government. Reform of Ireland's strict abortion laws is on the agenda, and the country's status as "a home for US multinationals seeking low corporate taxes is under threat from both Brussels and Trump".

However, it is Brexit that poses the most serious danger for the country's future economic prospects. Some have suggested an "Irexit" could be needed if the Brexit deal does not ensure satisfactory trading access with Ireland's main trading partner, Britain. Varadkar is against that as opinion polls show 80% of the Irish backing EU membership.

There is "a real consensus in Ireland about where we belong in the world, which is at the heart of Europe," Varadkar told Time. His overriding objective during the Brexit negotiations is to ensure that "we avoid any return to an economic border on the island of Ireland, because that could affect our peace process".