FINANCE Minister Brian Lenihan yesterday sparked a bitter backlash when he shocked Fianna Fail backbenchers by weighing in behind Taoiseach Brian Cowen.
Mr Lenihan's attempts to position himself to run for the Fianna Fail leadership after the general election were undermined by his surprise move.
Fianna Fail TDs said Mr Lenihan's support of Mr Cowen was "not what he has been telling backbenchers".
Mr Lenihan's behind-the-scenes involvement in talks about Mr Cowen's leadership will certainly weaken his relationship with the Taoiseach.
Mr Lenihan admitted he had been expressing "concerns" to Fianna Fail TDs about the party's position in opinion polls under Mr Cowen's leadership.
And he criticised Mr Cowen for "lapses in judgment" over the Taoiseach's infamous interview in Galway and his golf game with former Anglo Irish Bank boss Sean FitzPatrick.
But Mr Lenihan insisted he was not involved in any plot to mount a leadership heave against Mr Cowen.
"I haven't had time to organise a coup or a challenge in the last year," he said.
Mr Lenihan claimed he never said he would be a candidate for the Fianna Fail leadership as he has always insisted there is "no vacancy".
But he did concede that he would "take stock" if he held his seat in the general election and if there was a leadership contest.
Mr Lenihan's aunt, Mary O'Rourke, also performed something of a u-turn on her previous call last year for the party leadership to be debated in January.
Yet Ms O'Rourke yesterday said one of the reasons she was backing Mr Cowen was because it was too late for a leadership change.
After months of mutterings about a leadership takeover, the Lenihan clan's support for Mr Cowen raised eyebrows in the party and resulted in Mr Lenihan's motives being questioned.
His fellow leadership contender, Foreign Affairs Minister Micheal Martin, was left isolated by his stance.
Fianna Fail sources said Mr Lenihan was backing Mr Cowen to block Mr Martin's path to the leadership.
"He's for Cowen because if he goes for Micheal Martin there won't be a vacancy until the election after next," a senior party source said.
Fianna Fail backbencher Sean Power said he was "surprised and shocked" at Mr Lenihan's stance.
"I along with colleagues have spoken with Brian. The concerns we expressed were very much shared by him," he said.
Fellow backbench rebel John McGuinness said Mr Lenihan's backing for Mr Cowen was "not what he has been telling backbenchers".
Mr McGuinness claimed Mr Lenihan did "encourage dissent" among backbenchers and told them to "look at the numbers".
He accused Mr Lenihan of "actively seeking support from the backbenches" and a change of leadership was "something that was discussed with Brian over a long period of time".
Mr Lenihan denied he was lobbying to become leader and said he had simply been "flattered" to be regarded as a potential leader.