An election or a coronation – what's next for Fine Gael after Varadkar’s shocking resignation? 

Joshua Taggart, Junior Consultant

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s shock resignation on 20th March took everyone by surprise – especially those in Leinster House, who were reportedly scrambling to respond and appeared to have been given zero warning that such a senior figure in Irish politics was stepping away.

The first gay and mixed-race Taoiseach, Varadkar was a divisive figure – a darling to the Biden administration and the bane of Brexiteers, who himself admitted that he was leaving a mixed legacy in his wake. However, in his resignation speech he ‘left it to others’ to identify the shortcomings of  his tenure.

Varadkar made progress in some areas. His campaigning for the backstop following the Brexit referendum united European politicians and Remainers behind a clear solution for the island of Ireland and undoubtedly put Irish politics on the map. He also leaves a strong social legacy, having successfully campaigned for the introduction of gay marriage in 2015 and repealing the Eighth Amendment to pave the way for abortion rights in 2018.

Yet his legacy is tarnished by the chronic and distressing housing crisis. House prices are almost eight times the average wage, rents have increased on average by a staggering 90% in the last ten years, and at one point there fewer than 1000 properties on the market across the entire country. Failure to break the deadlock and increase the housing stock through supply-side reform opened the coalition government to intense criticism from all sides.

Combined with the sentiment of Ireland having a phantom economy – rich on paper due to multinationals being headquartered in Dublin but doing little to empower its citizens – voters feel frustrated with a centrist politics seemingly impotent to effect real change.

Ultimately, his undoing was the decision to call a snap election in 2020, which damaged Fine Gael’s lead and forced his party to band together with Fianna Fail and the Greens to avoid defeat. With eroded confidence and a reduced majority, the role of Taoiseach was forced to rotate between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and his joint efforts with Micheál Martin to get Ireland through the Covid pandemic did little to bolster his approval ratings. Fine Gale’s position in the polls has fallen steadily since its mid-2020 peak, putting Sinn Féin in pole position to win the next election in 2025.

The process to appoint a new Taoiseach is shaping up to be a one-horse race, with Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris poised to replace Varadkar. Harris has already secured support from nearly half of the parliamentary party, including the Deputy Leader and other senior Ministers, while potential challengers such as Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe have so far refused to throw their hat in the ring.  

If Harris is to become Taoiseach, he has a fight ahead of him, with Sinn Féin almost ten points ahead of Fine Gael in the polls. Harris is undoubtedly an establishment candidate rather than a radical, so any upsets or shock policy announcements are unlikely. To galvanise swing voters, Harris is instead expected to position his administration as the competent, secure and fiscally responsible choice, contrasting to Sinn Fein’s socialist roots. Whether voters will agree is another matter.

Will Harris be inspiring enough to close the poll gap in the next 12 months? Party officials seem to be putting all their eggs in one basket, perhaps looking across the water at the leadership chaos within the Conservative Party and deciding a peaceful power transfer is their safest strategy. Harris’ boldness in his first 100 days as Taoiseach will determine whether he can rally the right to defeat Sinn Féin or whether their election hopes end prematurely.

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