Since Leo Varadkar became Ireland’s prime minister in 2017 he has secured a sought-after Brexit deal with the UK, won a referendum to scrap a ban on abortion and maintained a booming economy. Now the young premier faces his biggest test: winning his own mandate to lead the country in a snap election next month.
The minority government Mr Varadkar heads was already one year into its term when he took over from Enda Kenny, inheriting a confidence-and-supply parliamentary voting deal with the Fianna Fáil opposition party that ensured political stability in Dublin during difficult Brexit talks.
That arrangement ended on Tuesday when Mr Varadkar called an election on February 8, saying his top aims have been achieved with Britain’s agreed EU exit this month and the revival of Northern Ireland’s government after years of paralysis.
“I have always said that the election should happen at the best time for the country. Now is that time,” he told reporters before asking the Irish president Michael D Higgins to dissolve parliament. “We have a deal on Brexit and in Northern Ireland. Our economy has never been stronger.”
Even before he spoke, Fine Gael party workers were pictured erecting posters of Mr Varadkar in his Dublin constituency. Ahead of the EU-UK trade negotiations this year, he will campaign on the basis that it is only half-time in the Brexit battle and argue that he needs a strong new mandate to help forge a trade deal that maintains Ireland’s deep economic links with Britain.
But as he turns 41 this Saturday, the taoiseach faces a fight to win a historic third successive term for his centre-right Fine Gael. A formidable challenge is expected from the liberal Fianna Fáil, which dominated Irish politics for most of the 20th century and is seeking a return to power for the first time since voters deposed it in 2011 amid widespread anger at the financial crash.
With the economic crisis now receding into the past, analysts expect a very tight election. A pre-Christmas Sunday Times poll suggested Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were neck and neck at 27 per cent each. Whichever wins the largest vote share will probably need the support of smaller parties and independent members of the Dáil assembly to form a government.
Even close allies of Mr Varadkar acknowledge that Mícheál Martin, Fianna Fáil’s leader, is a viable alternative prime minister. Fine Gael entered the last two elections in pole position; this time, the party’s fate will be determined by Mr Varadkar’s performance in the campaign.
“We really are in different territory to more recent elections because we now have two serious rivals for the office of taoiseach,” said Theresa Reidy, senior politics lecturer at University College Cork. “This time around it’s very much all to play for, and there’s a lot of emphasis on the fact that we now have two reasonably equally matched contenders.”
Brexit and the 2018 abortion referendum provided a platform for Mr Varadkar to present himself as a statesmanlike leader of a rapidly liberalising Ireland that resoundingly passed a 2015 referendum to legalise same-sex marriage.
That modernising zeal has brought Mr Varadkar international recognition. But the election may also turn on a litany of domestic problems facing his government.
Opposition parties are set to target a shortage of affordable housing, persistent health service failings, massive cost overruns on hospital and rural broadband projects and expensive childcare services in Ireland.
Mr Varadkar has acknowledged problems, saying on Tuesday that he knew it was “not enough” to have modernised social laws and that many workers did not see economic growth reflected in their payslips. “I want us to do much more,” he said.
Ms Reidy said the taoiseach may be confronted with a “governing penalty” faced by parties that have been in power for a long time. While only premier for three years, Mr Varadkar has been in cabinet since Fine Gael took office in 2011.
“They accrue policy failures that they really are responsible for. I think that is part of what Fine Gael are experiencing right now,” she said. “They have this difficulty that the economy has improved but the public service improvements are lagging behind expectation.”
The challenge is recognised within the taoiseach’s own administration. One figure close to the government said ministers were proud of its social policy achievements but noted a sense of apprehension.
“There is a certain amount of unease in the [Fine Gael] parliamentary party in terms of potential landmines that [Varadkar] might walk them into in the course of the campaign, in the sense that he may misspeak or misjudge a situation or an issue in terms of his public communications,” the person said.
“People really care about what affects them on a day-to-day basis. At the end of the day people only care about their 80-year-old mother on a hospital trolley or their kids in their twenties and thirties not having an opportunity to buy a home. All politics is local and that’s as local as you get.”