The gay son of an Indian immigrant has rebalanced his countrys relationship with Britain

When Boris Johnson was foreign secretary he allegedly asked his staff about Leo Varadkar: Why isnt he called Murphy like all the rest of them?

It was presumably a joke and not greatly appreciated when the leaked remark reached Dublin. But Johnson had hit on a basic truth about Varadkar. He is not a typical Irish politician.

The gay son of an Indian immigrant, a trained medical doctor, and socially awkward, the taoiseach does not fit the usual mould.

Instead of gladhanding constituents and attending funerals, two traditional elements of Irelands parish pump politics, Varadkar prefers to read policy papers and strategise with aides. He is, in other words, that person mocked by Johnson: a swot.

Yet when the two met in north-west England on Thursday, in private, away from journalists and the usual panoply of summitry, Johnson was forced to look up to Varadkar, both literally and metaphorically.

The taoiseach is 1.93m ( 6ft 4in) and stands on the shoulders of the European Union its commission, council, parliament and all 27 member states.

The Irish governments success in mobilising the EU behind the border backstop has rebalanced Irelands historically subservient relationship with Britain.

Yet Varadkar, like Johnson, is under immense pressure. If the UK leaves the EU with no deal it will hammer Irelands economy and destabilise Northern Ireland. But accepting a tweaked version of Downing Streets current plan, or some other plan that weakens the backstop, could torpedo Varadkars hopes of winning Irelands looming election.

The taoiseach would have got straight down to business.

He doesnt have a lot of time for, or interest in, small talk, said Brendan OShea, a doctor who trained Varadkar as a medical student. We have someone who is forensic about what he thinks should be done. The calculating machine will make a decision about what is the best decision then the politician will switch on and figure out a way to sell that.

Growing up as a GPs son in a middle-class Dublin suburb, young Leo declared, at the age of eight, an ambition to become health minister.

A biography says that, as a teenager on a school trip to Northern Ireland, the future taoiseach smuggled fireworks back into the republic, which some might consider a metaphor for his role in Brexit.

Varadkar studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin and joined Fine Gael, a centre-right party. Outspoken about tax cuts and welfare reform, some called him Tory boy. His heroes included Otto von Bismarck and Ryanairs Michael OLeary.

As a Teachta Dla (member of the Irish parliament) and minister, Varadkar earned a reputation for energy, direct language and social stiffness some public interactions left aides cringing.

Johnsons bonhomie, however, may not be totally wasted on Varadkar, who has loosened up since coming out as gay in 2015.

Its not something that defines me, the then health minister told RT. Im not a half-Indian politician, or a doctor politician or a gay politician for that matter. Its just part of who I am.

It was a brave admission Ireland had yet to legalise same-sex marriage. The response was overwhelmingly positive and Varadkar went on to succeed Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael and taoiseach in 2017, and in the process to go from Mars bar binger to fitness fanatic.

Coming out changes everybody, said Tiernan Brady, an LGBT activist who advised Varadkar. In accepting who you are to yourself, and that you can still go on to lead your party and your country, thats been really affirming. That brings you a whole level of confidence.

Some Irish backstop sceptics warn that Varadkars government may be suffering from over-confidence, that bending Brussels to Dublins agenda may backfire, and that the broad national consensus behind the strategy may deter the taoiseach from compromising.

Varadkars personal political interests have diverted from the national interest, said Dan OBrien, the chief economist at the Institute of International and European Affairs. His political career could be ended by making a concession on the backstop. Fianna Fil and Sinn Fin would come down on him like a tonne of bricks. Its never a good idea for a leader to be painted into a corner.



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