EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn has left a cloud hanging over Dr James Reilly ahead of the Budget after privately expressing his belief that the health minister was "not up to the job".
It came as Budget tensions between the Coalition partners continued, with Fine Gael ministers forced to deny they are protecting the well-off in society at the expense of the poor.
Meanwhile, Labour backbenchers are furious with the decision to back away from a 3pc rise in the universal social charge (USC) for people earning over €100,000 in favour of a mansions tax.
Labour TDs said the row over Mr Quinn's comments was an unwelcome distraction from the fight over the Budget.
They maintain that they will not be moving to get rid of Dr Reilly – that is a job that will be left to Fine Gael backbenchers if there is another health disaster.
But Mr Quinn nonetheless failed to clear up the controversy, which came after he appeared to agree with comments by a backbencher at a private party meeting last week that Dr Reilly was "not up to the job". He would only say the proceedings of the Labour parliamentary party meetings were confidential.
"We cannot do our business unless they remain confidential. I'm not going to confirm or deny or in any way change my comment that I've made repeatedly about Dr Jim Reilly.
"He has both my confidence and my sympathy. He has an extremely difficult job to do."
Mr Quinn was attending the launch of a new report at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin to help young people "critically engage" with film.
One Labour backbencher said the Government had now "bottled" the decision on the USC and was going to let highly paid public servants in particular escape.
Another Labour backbencher said the Budget was beginning to resemble a Fine Gael cake with some Labour cherries on top and that it would leave a "huge feeling of unfairness".
Labour TDs have doubts about the mansions tax generating any significant revenue, whereas a 3pc rise in the USC for those on over €100,000 would have brought in €71m.
But Transport Minister Leo Varadkar denied that the Budget would be about protecting the well-off.
"Those who can bear the most should bear the most and the Budget is going to be fair. It can't be done otherwise," he said.
But there is bitterness in Labour about the fact that Fine Gael ministers threatened to cut social welfare rates in response to the Labour demand for a raise in the USC.