Big beasts go to war
SOCIAL Protection Minister Leo Varadkar has been assured the support of around 30 Fine Gael parliamentary party members in the leadership battle to replace Enda Kenny as party leader and possible Taoiseach, the Sunday Independent has learned.
The massive level of support, which equates to almost half the parliamentary party, gives Mr Varadkar a significant advantage over his nearest rival, Housing Minister Simon Coveney.
Well-placed sources said those who had privately declared loyalty to Mr Varadkar included senior and junior ministers, along with backbench TDs and senators.
However, sources close to Mr Coveney this weekend dismissed the figures and rounded on Mr Varadkar for spending too much time "buying TDs coffee" and "offering ministries" rather than concentrating on his brief.
One source said Mr Coveney was "not out actively campaigning like Leo" as he believed the party was "quite some time away" from a leadership contest and he had a "lot of work to do between now and then".
He added: "The minister chose to take a difficult ministry and if he can show he dealt with awkward issues like water, homelessness and housing and bring in significant local reforms then he will have credibility with colleagues as opposed to wining and dining people and promising them jobs."
Mr Varadkar is understood to be eager to have a contest with Mr Coveney rather than a coronation as, should he win, it would strengthen his position as leader.
However, TDs and senators who back candidates other than Mr Coveney are likely to suffer political consequences if the Social Protection Minister wins the contest, according to sources, who believe Mr Varadkar will not appoint them to senior positions.
It has also emerged that Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar will not strike a deal before a leadership contest that would clear the path for the other to become party leader.
Fine Gael's parliamentary party consists of 50 TDs, 19 senators and four MEPs. However, a Fine Gael election would involve the entire party, including local councillors and card-carrying members. In the weighted voting system, the parliamentary party accounts for 50pc of the vote, councillors 20pc, and party members 30pc.
Sources close to Mr Varadkar confirmed that he had privately received the support of dozens of parliamentary party members but also warned it was too early to suggest he could rely on their votes in a leadership election.
As the Fine Gael leadership race intensifies, three Cabinet ministers last week told the Sunday Independent they expected Mr Kenny to make way for a new leader next summer or he would face a heave.
A senior minister said the contest "will be in the coming months", while another said: "I don't see something happening before the summer."
This is despite suggestions that Mr Kenny will hold on to power until the visit of Pope Francis who confirmed he was coming to Ireland in August 2018 during a meeting with the Taoiseach at the Vatican last week.
Meanwhile, Fianna Fail is continuing to target Fine Gael leadership contenders rather than Mr Kenny with political attacks in anticipation of a regime change.
Fianna Fail Housing spokesman Barry Cowen yesterday accused Mr Coveney of being "distracted" by the leadership race and forgetting his obligation to the Oireachtas Water Committee.
Mr Cowen said the Housing Minister's call for water bill evaders to be pursued "proves the distraction that the leadership contest" is having on him. "Coveney rushed out to appeal to the core law and order blueshirt voter," said the Fianna Fail TD.
"The minister should know there is a process in place in the confidence and supply arrangement which states that it is for the committee to decide on the most equitable way to treat those who paid bills."
Mr Coveney is strongly of the belief that those who paid their water charges should not be punished. "Where are we going as a country if we treat people who pay their taxes worse than those who don't?" a source said.
However, the Housing Minister has softened his stance on refunds in recent days and is now insisting the committee should be allowed to debate the outcome of the expert report on water charges.
Mr Varadkar's camp, which is adamant that there should be no refunds, has seized on Mr Coveney's stance on water. "Simon always seems to back down," a source said.
Mr Cowen's criticism of Mr Coveney follows Social Protection Minister Willie O'Dea attacking Mr Varadkar for agreeing to guest host an RTE Radio One music show over Christmas. "If it was anyone else, it would be called out and ridiculed as an unprecedented self-promoting absurdity. But it's no problem for Leo Varadkar. Indeed, it is a natural progression for the most hands-off minister in modern times," Mr O'Dea said.
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