BRIAN Cowen's staunchest ally in Cabinet was one of the flood of ministers who stepped down yesterday -- just hours after the Government issued furious denials he was about to do so.
Former Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe also announced he would not be running again in the General Election in his Cork North-West constituency.
It had been rumoured for months that Mr O'Keeffe -- who was Mr Cowen's closest adviser as he faced a leadership crisis over the past week -- was about to step down. But the 65-year-old had consistently denied this, insisting he would run for the Dail again.
Mr O'Keeffe was key to Mr Cowen's triumph in the confidence motion vote on Tuesday and advised him throughout last weekend when his leadership was under attack from former Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin. Government sources said it was his idea to put down the confidence motion.
His selection convention in Cork North-West was cancelled at the last minute on Monday evening.
At the time, it was speculated that Mr O'Keeffe had been due to announce his retirement at the convention but then had the event postponed because it might have been seen as a body-blow to the Taoiseach ahead of the confidence vote.
Yesterday morning it was confirmed he would not running in the election and that he would be resigning from Cabinet. Mr O'Keeffe had privately expressed reservations about standing again for months.
The confirmation of the resignation ended several hours of rumours, with opposition TDs demanding clarification from Tanaiste Mary Coughlan in the Dail on his position.
His spokesman last night said Mr O'Keeffe had intended to stay on but made his final decision late on Wednesday following consultations with his family. It is believed he delayed his announcement until Mr Cowen got through the confidence motion.
Mr O'Keeffe has three years' service as a Cabinet minister and almost a year as a junior minister.
He is entitled to a ministerial pension of around €41,000 and a TD's pension of around €50,000. That means he will receive around €91,000 in combined pensions every year for the rest of his life.
He is also entitled to more than €250,000 next year when 'parachute' lump sums are taken into account.
Mr Cowen yesterday described Mr O'Keeffe as "one of my best friends in politics and in life".
The Taoiseach added: "He is a politician of great wisdom, intelligence and loyalty. He has been a hard-working public representative for over a quarter of a century and he has come to a decision not to contest the next election.
"From our discussions I know he shares my assessment that there is a need to have more young people in government as a necessary source of renewal and vitality in our politics."
Mr Cowen praised Mr O'Keeffe's performance as Education Minister and, previously, as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation.
Mr O'Keeffe was first elected in Cork South-Central in 1987 but lost his seat at the 1989 election. After spending three years in the Seanad, he was re-elected to the Dail in 1992, and held his seat since, moving to Cork North-West in 2007 because of boundary changes.
He was a junior minister between 2004 and 2008.