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Humiliated Varadkar gets second dressing down from Taoiseach

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Enda Kenny and (inset) Leo Varadkar

Enda Kenny and (inset) Leo Varadkar

Enda Kenny and (inset) Leo Varadkar

HUMILIATED Health Minister Leo Varadkar has accepted he should not have aired his Budget woes publicly and promised Enda Kenny he will not do it again, the Irish Independent has learned.

At a private meeting with Fine Gael ministers before yesterday's Cabinet meeting, the Taoiseach repeated his warning to Mr Varadkar that Budget business should not be discussed in public.

It followed Mr Kenny's extraordinary public slap down to his Health Minister after Mr Varadkar suggested people might see an extra "fiver or tenner" in their pay packets in the next Budget.

A furious Mr Kenny has warned his young Health Minister to concentrate on finding ways to enact Government policy rather than producing "endless" volumes of recommendations for "why things can't be done".

Mr Varadkar had infuriated Mr Kenny by demanding an extra €500m to fill the hole in the health budget, and said he was unsure he could deliver the Government's key initiative of free GP care for children under six this year.

At a full Cabinet meeting yesterday, the Taoiseach warned all ministers to "advance their own priorities" while keeping in mind objectives agreed between Coalition partners.

Supporters of Mr Varadkar within Government circles are annoyed at the Taoiseach's double put-down of the minister.

Government sources said Mr Varadkar accepted he should not have discussed Budget matters during a radio interview but "stood his ground" on his demands for the health budget and the likelihood of implementing the free GP care scheme this year.

A senior Fine Gael source said Mr Kenny should not be surprised by Mr Varadkar's public comments, given his reputation as an "independent shooter".

The embarrassing Cabinet row came on the eve of Fine Gael's annual parliamentary party think-in at Fota Island Resort in Cork and is now likely to be a key talking point among party members as they prepare for the new Dail term.

Budget discussions will intensify in the coming days as ministers begin meeting with Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin to set out their stalls.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin pounced on the opportunity to criticise the Coalition following the internal Fine Gael spat and called on the Taoiseach to "come clean on the glaring failings" in the Government's health policy.

"Enda Kenny is clearly frustrated and uncomfortable with the new Health Minister's attempts to distance himself from the Government's failure to reform the health service and protect frontline services," Mr Martin said.

"Former health minister James Reilly enjoyed the full confidence of the entire Government for his handling of the health service for the last four years but it's clear the Taoiseach is now annoyed Leo Varadkar is breaking ranks and commenting publicly about the need to put the brakes on many of the more unpopular reforms."

Mr Varadkar was given the health portfolio in the recent Cabinet reshuffle following widespread criticism of Mr Reilly's ability to control the department's budget.

A briefing document prepared for Mr Varadkar following his appointment highlighted serious concerns over Mr Reilly's plans to introduce Universal Health Insurance (UHI).

The document also set out Mr Reilly's plans for abolishing the HSE, which sources in the Department of Health described as "head melting".

"If you look at the briefing material from the department you can't work it out," a source said. "There is no point abolishing the HSE if there is nothing there to replace it."

And another source said: "The irony of Kenny's criticism of Varadkar is he has never written or given the Taoiseach a 300-page report of any sort.

Controversial

"It was a document written for Varadkar which was released under (the) Freedom of Information Act."

During his controversial interview on RTE Radio One, Mr Varadkar said it would not be possible to abolish the HSE or introduce UHI during the life- time of the current Government.

He also said he did not know if he would be able to introduce free GP care for under sixes this year or free GP care for over 70s next year. However, Mr Varadkar is committed to introducing both policies during his time in office.

Mr Varadkar also suggested people could see an extra €5 or €10 in their pay packets in the Budget. Just a few hours later, Mr Kenny rounded on his Health Minister.

Irish Independent