'No time to switch team,' says Taoiseach with UK negotiations only at 'half-time'
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is poised to call an early election this week in a bid to capitalise on the success of Brexit negotiations.
Senior Fine Gael figures have predicted Mr Varadkar will dissolve the Dáil by Thursday at the latest, with a view to going to the polls as early as February 7.
It comes as Mr Varadkar strongly signalled he is holding off on calling the election until after his meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson today and the visit to Dublin of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday.
The Government's record on Brexit - and Mr Varadkar's part in securing a deal - is set to be a key pillar of Mr Varadkar's pitch for re-election.
Mr Varadkar emphasised his relationship with key European leaders while refusing to be drawn on the date of the election last night.
Meanwhile, the Irish Independent has learned visits by former senior EU officials Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk may be on the cards as part of Mr Varadkar's efforts to win the election.
The Taoiseach emphasised the importance of Brexit to the campaign when he addressed a private Fine Gael meeting on Friday, saying it's only "half-time" in the process.
He added: "We're about 1-0 up" and it's "definitely not the time to switch the team".
Fine Gael has already started attacks on Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and his front bench team's ability to tackle Brexit.
Fianna Fáil's Brexit spokesperson responded by branding such attacks as "cheap mudslinging" and arguing the public won't be impressed by such tactics. Mr Varadkar fuelled speculation he would dissolve the Dáil this week by confirming he had made the decision on the timing of the election but was refusing to name the date.
A series of senior Fine Gael sources pointed to Friday, February 7 - just a week after the UK is due to leave the EU - as the most likely date for voters to cast their ballots. One source predicted the Dáil "will definitely be dissolved by Thursday" - the day after the State dinner for Ms Von der Leyen - while another suggested the election date may be announced that day.
There is a growing consensus among ministers that Mr Varadkar plans to go to the country on February 7, although the Taoiseach is keeping his intentions close to his chest.
He told RTÉ it was always his view the election should be in the summer of 2020 but "the circumstances have changed".
He said there was now a deal on Brexit and the Northern Ireland institutions were up and running but also there was the "reality" of the change to the arithmetic in the Dáil.
It was confirmed at the weekend Mr Varadkar's Government no longer had the numbers to survive a no-confidence vote. Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness said he would defy his party and vote in favour of a threatened no-confidence motion in Health Minister Simon Harris.
Meanwhile, it is understood Independent TD Noel Grealish, on whom the Government relies for support, would abstain, meaning the Government would be defeated.
Mr Varadkar said there was "unfinished business" he wanted to get done before the election. This is understood to include Ms von der Leyen's visit and the meeting with Mr Johnson at Stormont this morning. Mr Varadkar also wants to speak to the Cabinet and the leaders of the Opposition and is due to meet Mr Martin as early as tomorrow.
It is believed the visit of Ms Von der Leyen will help remind voters of the successful role of the Taoiseach and Tánaiste Simon Coveney in the Brexit negotiations.
And while she is constrained from direct political involvement in Ireland, other key EU figures who have left office are expected to lend election support.
A senior source suggested there may well be visits from Mr Juncker and Mr Tusk, both of whom are aligned with the European People's Party (EPP), which includes Fine Gael.
Mr Varadkar highlighted his contacts in Europe, saying: "I've built up enormous relationships over the past couple of years. I think they're a value to the country and I hope the country will think so too."
Aggressively targeting Fianna Fáil leader Mr Martin and his alternative Brexit team will form a key line of attack for Fine Gael.
Last night, one minister questioned if voters would believe Mr Martin could "field a better team" than Mr Varadkar and said: "We'll be linking everything back to this."
A Fianna Fáil spokesman hit back, claiming: "With absolute chaos in our health system and their complete failure on housing, it is perhaps not surprising that straight out of the traps they want to launch personal attacks."
Fianna Fáil moved to appoint its deputy leader Dara Calleary as the party's director of elections just hours after Mr Varadkar's interview.
Mr Calleary said last night his party was "ready to fight and win the next general election, whenever it may be".
Leo Varadkar has come out swinging - even before he formally names that election date. His blunt message to the voters - implicitly and explicitly - will be: The other crowd wrecked the economy; we got things back on track. Do you really believe Fianna Fáil will not - yet again - squander the boom just as it spectacularly did last time?
As an election looms, Leo Varadkar has come under pressure over the health service and record numbers of patients on trolleys. He has defended the Government's record, claiming it has added 1,000 extra hospital beds. But drilling down into this claim, does it stand up to scrutiny?
Bar erecting a statue of Oliver Cromwell in Drogheda, it's hard to see how Fine Gael could have got itself in a worse bind over the commemorations of the birth of the nation.