Coveney banks on three MEPs in ground battle with Varadkar
Housing Minister Simon Coveney is banking on the support of three out of four Fine Gael MEPs in the race to be the next party leader.
With Taoiseach Enda Kenny expected to formally fire the starting gun for the leadership contest next week, both Mr Coveney and Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar continue to claim they have the upper-hand.
Mr Kenny took part in a series of events yesterday but declined to take any questions from journalists.
A media opportunity at a meeting of the European People's Party in Wicklow yesterday morning was cancelled and he again avoided questions while holding a briefing with Michel Barnier in his Government Building's office in the afternoon.
His office is still adorned with personal photographs and was devoid of any evidence that he may be moving in the coming weeks.
However, Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar's strategy teams are operating on the assumption that they will publicly launch their campaigns next Thursday.
Sources in the Coveney camp told the Irish Independent he expects to win the support of MEPs Mairead McGuinness (Midlands-North West), Sean Kelly (Ireland South) and Deirdre Clune (South).
Dublin MEP Brian Hayes is understood to be backing Mr Varadkar.
During the contest, Mr Coveney intends to highlight his experience at EU level while agriculture minister, with sources noting the new leader will have to quickly engage with the Brexit negotiations.
"Sometimes people forget about the MEPs in the context of the parliamentary party but between them Mairead, Sean and Deirdre represent a huge section of the country," said one source.
The MEPs are considered part of the Fine Gael parliamentary party which will make up 65pc of the vote. Members account for 25pc and councillors make up 10pc.
Another Coveney source said they believe he is "slightly ahead" in terms of support from TDs, councillors and members.
However, sources close to Mr Varadkar dismissed this as wishful thinking.
"Leo is already 10 ahead among the 50pc of people who gave a preference to RTÉ during the week. That's nearly 2:1. So we're confident about how the numbers add up," the source said.
Part of the strategy by both sides is to unveil their high-profile supporters over the opening days of the campaign in the hope of gaining momentum.
Meanwhile, there is now a growing expectation that a third candidate will not enter the race.
Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Education Minister Richard Burton have both remained quiet about their intentions.
"As she has previously stated the Tánaiste is seriously considering it. She will make her intentions clear when a vacancy arises," a spokesperson for Ms Fitzgerald said last night.
However, a number of well-placed party sources said both minsters are now more likely to try to secure their positions in Cabinet.
"There won't be a third candidate at this stage. The media are so focused on the two that are known there isn't room for a third now," said a TD.