Varadkar closes in on power with big poll lead
Poll shows huge lead over Coveney but ministers warn of Kenny fight
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar now has the momentum to succeed Taoiseach Enda Kenny as leader of Fine Gael and has taken a decisive lead over his nearest challenger, Housing Minister Simon Coveney, according to the latest Sunday Independent/Kantar Millward Brown opinion poll.
Varadkar is the clear favourite among Fine Gael supporters and is edging further away from Coveney as the battle to replace Kenny intensifies after the Government's 'give-away' Budget failed to produce any significant gains for the party.
Varadkar is the first choice leader-in-waiting for 39pc of Fine Gael supporters and now commands a massive 14 point lead over Coveney, who is the preferred leader for 25pc of party supporters polled. There was a four-point gap between the two front-runners in a similar poll taken in June.
The poll results are indicative of his popularity among the grassroots. Every member of the party has a vote in the leadership elections, but votes are weighted depending on their position. The votes of TDs, senators and MEPs account for 65pc, councillors have 10pc of the vote and ordinary members have 25pc.
However, the poll boost for Varadkar comes as two Fine Gael ministers last night warned that Kenny would "take on" the minister in a leadership battle if he was to move on the Taoiseach.
Amid mounting concerns surrounding his leadership Enda Kenny remained defiant last night stating he'll be "around for a long time" - copper-fastening his plan to remain on as Taoiseach when Pope Francis visits Ireland in August 2018.
A number of senators, TDs and ministers contacted by the Sunday Independent yesterday said Kenny would definitely face a heave if he sought to remain leader for two more years.
Prominent Fine Gael TD John Paul Phelan said: "No one believes that Enda Kenny will be Taoiseach in August 2018."
Today's poll shows less than half (49pc) of Fine Gael supporters believe Enda Kenny should remain as party leader, while 30pc said he should resign now.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael saw no increase in public support after the Budget - despite spending €1.2bn on investment, welfare increases and tax cuts. Kenny's party is down one to 29pc, while Fianna Fail is up one to 27pc and Sinn Fein remains unchanged at 20pc. The Labour Party is up one to 8pc, the Greens are down one to 2pc, while Independent/Others are up one to 15pc.
Fine Gael's partner in government, the Independent Alliance, is at 5pc - the same figure as the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit, while the Social Democrats are at 1pc. One in five people (20pc) said they believe they will be better off next year while almost a quarter (23pc) think they will be worse off.
A little more than a third (37pc) said the Government should have introduced more tax cuts in the Budget, while a similar number (35pc) said more funding should have been invested in services.
Kantar Millward Brown associate director Paul Moran said the poll showed public reaction to the Budget was "relatively muted".
"The Budget could have been an opportunity [for the Government] to stamp its identity onto the psyche of the nation. Instead we got a rather tepid mismatch of consensus - a nil-all draw in soccer parlance," Mr Moran said.
Meanwhile, almost two in five Fine Gael supporters believe Varadkar should lead the party compared with just a quarter who back Coveney for the role. In the last similar poll, Varadkar held 30pc of party support while Coveney had 26pc.
Among the general public, Varadkar is also clear favourite (28pc) to replace Kenny, compared to Coveney (19pc).
Some 10pc of Fine Gael supporters said they believed Education Minister Richard Bruton should be the party's next leader.
Health Minister Simon Harris was not offered as an option for respondents - but yesterday, during an interview on RTE Radio One, he expressed an interest in running for the leadership. Tanaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald is also eager to challenge for the leadership.
However, today's poll findings will be a major blow for Mr Coveney who backbenchers say has upped the ante in the leadership battle by making himself more accessible to Fine Gael TDs.
Last night, a Fine Gael minister said the Taoiseach had "no notion" of going anywhere and would stay on as party leader for as long as he could.
"The only way he'll go is if he's pushed - and if Leo moves too soon I think Kenny will fight him," the minister added.
Another minister said: "Leo is gathering momentum and is a good media performer - but Kenny will take him on if it comes down to it. Enda is up for it, he has a lot of experience and he's a fighter."
However, it is understood that Varadkar is eager to distance himself from those planning to move on Kenny, as his supporters believe it could damage him in a future leadership battle.
Some of the Taoiseach's critics say he should begin the process of stepping down next March, soon after the official State visit to the US for St Patrick's Day
Others believe he should resign in June, by which time he will have exceeded John A Costello as the longest-serving Fine Gael Taoiseach.
Kenny's personal rating is up slightly to 29pc but he is still far behind Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin on 43pc. Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams is also at 29pc and Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin is at 25pc.
Fianna Fail is far more transfer-friendly than Fine Gael, despite having less public support. The poll shows one in four Fianna Fail supporters would never vote for Fine Gael, while just 13pc of Fine Gael voters said they would never vote for Fianna Fail.
A little more than a fifth (21pc of respondents) believe the Government will last more than three years.