'Damaged' Enda Kenny expected to step down by the spring
Embattled Enda Kenny will step down by the spring following one of his most disastrous weeks since becoming Taoiseach, senior Government figures now believe.
Mr Kenny, who was last night described as "damaged goods" by one minister, is under major pressure to spell out his departure plan immediately after October's Budget.
There is a now a growing consensus within Fine Gael circles that a leadership contest in the spring is a likely scenario.
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar yesterday reiterated his desire to succeed Mr Kenny as Taoiseach but declined to say when he would like to see a contest take place.
The Fine Gael leader has endured a torrid week, which began with a slap-down from DUP leader Arlene Foster, followed by a tense parliamentary party meeting when his credibility was openly questioned.
Mr Kenny was also painted as being weak after he capitulated to the demands of Transport Minister Shane Ross to allow a free vote on the issue of Mick Wallace's bill on fatal foetal abnormalities.
And his decision to reappoint James Reilly as deputy leader - just weeks after Dr Reilly had effectively been sacked - caused utter shock.
The mood within Fine Gael is at its lowest point since the party's disastrous General Election result in February.
That mood is likely to worsen next week, when an internal report into the election result is completed and presented to Mr Kenny.
There was particular shock and dismay on Thursday after an opinion poll placed Fine Gael a massive nine points behind Fianna Fáil.
Yesterday, more than a dozen ministers and backbenchers accepted that Mr Kenny's authority over the party had been eroded as a result of the events of this week.
"He is damaged goods, it's time for him to go," one minster said.
Meanwhile, the decision by deputies to openly question Mr Kenny's authority at the parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday night has effectively set off the leadership contest.
Party chairman Martin Heydon has said he wants to see a "plan in place" for Mr Kenny to be succeeded as leader.
Cork South West TD Jim Daly called on Mr Kenny to make his plans known after the Budget, while Louth deputy Fergus O'Dowd called for a "calm process over the summer" for the leadership issue to be discussed.
Mr O'Dowd also confirmed that he is interested in the leadership, in a move that has surprised party colleagues.
Meanwhile, two of the leading contenders to succeed Mr Kenny have spoken publicly about this week's controversy.
Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar said he would "love" to lead Fine Gael once a vacancy arises.
"Of course, I'd love to lead my party, I've been dedicated to it since I was 17 or 18 years old," he said.
"But that's something you have to consider at the appropriate time, when a vacancy arises," he told 'Kildare Today with Shane Beatty' on KFM radio. He added that the poll showed that the Government needs to work harder.
"It puts Fianna Fáil nine points ahead of Fine Gael. It does send a bit of a message to tell us that we need to get down to business and start doing the people's business."
Mr Varadkar is seen as the clear frontrunner to succeed Mr Kenny and last night entertained a number of TDs and supporters at Leopardstown racecourse in a move that was seen as currying favour.
Housing Minister Simon Coveney said he expected the leadership to be discussed "in the not too distant future" but declined to comment on his own ambitions.
"We need to think about an election in a few years' time and there are all sorts of issues internally within the party that need to be discussed and debated and resolved in that context," he said.
Other contenders, Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe, are understood to be closely monitoring events.