FINE Gael frontbencher Leo Varadkar last night expressed concern about how his party was losing ground to Labour in urban areas.
Although Mr Varadkar has been publicly loyal since opposing Enda Kenny last June, his comments will increase the pressure on the embattled leader to improve his party's performance in the cities.
According to private research carried out last year by Fine Gael, the party's vote was 1pc lower in urban centres such as Cork, Limerick and Galway than it was in Dublin.
Mr Varadkar said Fine Gael had been well ahead of Labour in urban areas, but was now level with them.
"There's been a big swing from Fine Gael supporters to Labour among the urban middle class. If you look at the mrbi poll, Fine Gael is doing no better among working-class voters than middle-class voters and Eamon Gilmore is way ahead, particularly with middle- class voters," he said.
Mr Varadkar said the drop in urban support across the country was something Fine Gael would have to study -- and he personally did not know why it had happened.
"Coming from a point where we were way ahead with ABC1 voters (the wealthiest group), we're now neck-and-neck with Labour. I think it's not a Dublin thing, I do think there is an urban issue and Fine Gael is not doing as well among urban and middle-class voters as it was a year ago," he told RTE's 'This Week' programme.
Last night, Mr Varadkar said he was only replying frankly to the questions about Fine Gael's urban support -- and did not intend it as a criticism of Mr Kenny. "It's nothing to do with Enda at all. Appealing to an urban audience is about a lot more than who the party leader is," he said.
Last night, rebel Fine Gael TD Lucinda Creighton advocated a form of "Tallaght strategy" to co-operate with the Government on budgetary policy -- just days after Mr Kenny had ruled such a strategy out.
"Irish people are increasingly deflated and despairing. If they see some patriotism and true leadership coming from opposition deputies, I have no doubt that the entire country will rise to the enormous challenges which face us," she wrote on her website.
Fine Gael will have to consider whether the decline in urban support is related to its divisive leadership contest or its decision to take a more cautious policy approach in recent months in an attempt to compete with the Labour Party. It had previously promoted what members saw as "edgier" policies such as cutting public spending and winding up Anglo Irish Bank.
Mr Kenny is expected to unveil the new members of his junior frontbench on Wednesday -- which will be closely watched to see what jobs are given to former rebels like Brian Hayes and Denis Naughten.
But party members have noted that the junior frontbench positions are very low profile. Many did not know that Cork South-West TD PJ Sheahan was the party's junior spokesman on agriculture until he announced his resignation last month after allegedly making drunken threats to gardai in Leinster House.