Leo in clear lead as Simon suffers from a bruising week
Leo Varadkar has stretched his lead in the race to be the next leader of Fine Gael after a bruising week for his main rival Simon Coveney.
The Social Protection Minister is now the overwhelming favourite within party ranks to replace Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.
Many party TDs and Senators also feel he made the right call in publicly criticising Garda unions over the threatened strikes.
Mr Varadkar also got his first chance to lead the Government in the Dáil, with even Fianna Fáil figures admitting he performed well in taking on Sinn Féin.
"It was a tour-de-force. People were very impressed. He had the fight of a leader," a senior party source said.
Mr Coveney, meanwhile, faced a hostile audience at a private parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday night, with TDs "tearing into him". He also floundered on his grant for first-time buyers. The other potential contenders, Frances Fitzgerald and Paschal Donohoe, are battling a series of problems.
Ms Fitzgerald is bogged down in the whistleblower debacle and Garda strikes, while Mr Donohoe came under fire from his colleagues for the handling of the TD pay controversy.
Several senior party sources have told the Irish Independent that while they want a contest to find a replacement for Mr Kenny, Mr Varadkar is now "well out in front".
His previously tense relationship with the Independent Alliance also improved hugely during Budget negotiations.
The Dublin West TD has been undertaking a nationwide tour in recent weeks. Yesterday he was in Longford to visit staff at a social welfare office and workers who recently lost their jobs. But he also held a meeting with councillors and party members.
Asked about his leadership ambitions, he was quick to argue he only managed to "squeeze in one or two encounters with Fine Gael members".
"There was only one meeting with Fine Gael councillors and a short meeting with members.
"I am not taking any questions on the leadership for the obvious reason that no matter what I say it will be blown out of proportion," he said.
At the same time, Mr Coveney is battling huge criticism of his Help-To-Buy scheme which has already had to be revised on foot of push back from the Central Bank.
The Cork South-Central TD was also forced to "close down" a debate on constituency boundaries at a meeting of TDs and senators on Wednesday after coming under fire from a junior minister and two TDs.
They are concerned the Boundary Commission set up by Mr Coveney has not been given enough flexibility to prevent a widespread redrawing of constituencies. "He just killed off the conversation even though TDs wanted to speak. He was very unsure on anything on it even though it's his responsibility and he promised to update the party in July," said a source.
Mr Kenny yesterday indicated he intends to welcome Pope Francis to Ireland in August 2018 as Taoiseach - but this position is seen as lacking credibility by senior party figures.
Around 750 Fine Gael supporters will gather in the Double Tree Hotel in Dublin tonight to hear what many believe will be his final speech to Fine Gael's annual Presidential Dinner.