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Behind the painted smiles, scolded Leo holds court

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Taoiseach Enda Kenny and  Minister Leo Varadkar.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister Leo Varadkar.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister Leo Varadkar.

It's 2am in the bar of Fota Island resort hotel and Leo is holding court. After the week he's had, publicly "scolded and slapped" by his chief, you'd be forgiven for thinking the outspoken health minister might be feeling a bit sheepish.

But not Leo. Fine Gael's straight-talking star player was enjoying himself, revelling in his notoriety.

Like the cool kid in school who regularly found himself in the principal's office, Leo was the centre of all the attention in the bar that night, with TDs and journalists eager to get their face-to-face time with him.

The spat with the Taoiseach was the talk of an otherwise dull as dishwater think-in.

Leo, not the greatest singer in the world, by his own admission, partook in a singsong as the night drifted to a close.

There certainly were two competing stars doing the rounds in the bar, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny, keen to press the flesh before eventually calling it a night and heading to bed at 1am.

But Leo kept going, and was the last Cabinet minister to retire at 3am.

Naturally quite shy, mixing with the media and the more celebratory party members of Fine Gael was probably not Leo's idea of fun, but he worked the room nonetheless.

Earlier in the day, he told the media as he arrived: "I don't mind being slapped down and scolded. I am a big boy and I'm willing to take a degree of criticism from time to time."

But in the same breath he cut a defiant tone that he will not budge an inch in fighting to get a realistic budget in order to meet the demands of the crumbling health service he now runs.

A little while later, a significant exchange occurred during his behind-closed-doors heath presentation to party members.

As he was concluding Leo spoke about Seán Flanagan, the last Mayo-man to captain a winning team in the All-Ireland football final, all the way back in 1951.

Leo then referenced Diarmaid Ferriter who said Flanagan was "regarded as opinionated and direct in his dealings", yet he proved to be a great success as Minister for Health. Leo then joked that we will have the problems in health sorted out before Mayo ever win another All-Ireland.

Then out of nowhere, a "desperate looking" Taoiseach Enda Kenny leapt out of his chair and up onto the stage.

Enda told the troops: "We are all part of one government here. What we want to do is not get into a position where people tend to divide what happens in government. We have a single objective here. I appointed this man to be our Minister for Health. He's going to do that job and government is going to help him, making difficult choices in some of these areas. So just get that into your heads now. Myself and Leo as two members of the government are part of the team to sort out our country,"

The sudden leap from the floor left a number of TDs present baffled.

"It was very strange alright, it was all a bit forced and cringey," said one Minister. "It was a clear sign that Enda is worried by Leo and hasn't a clue how to handle him," said another.

The lady doth protest too much perhaps?

Certainly it is a clear sign Leo is now feared by the party elders who are probably regretting putting him into health, where so far he has managed to control the agenda. Even as the event was drawing to a close, nothing was left to chance in order to convince all that hostilities had ceased.

Leo was "dragged over" by PR handlers to take tea together with Enda on the patio on Friday morning to show everyone that they were the bestest of friends, like ever.

One thinks back to the uncomfortable photos Enda used to force Lucinda Creighton into after she had been bold.

As for poor James Reilly, the man Leo replaced, he cut a forlorn figure at the gathering, knowing he now carries absolutely no weight in the party anymore.

But Leo knows nothing has been won yet. Things are just starting to get interesting.

Sunday Independent