'The most capable politician of my generation' - Senior ministers Donohoe and Flanagan also row in behind Varadkar
Ministers Paschal Donohoe and Charlie Flanagan have revealed they are supporting Leo Varadkar in the upcoming Fine Gael leadership battle.
Along with Paul Kehoe TD this morning, the declaration from the two experienced ministers ensures that Mr Varadkar continues to rack up a lead - despite not having formally said he will run.
Mr Donohoe's support was predicted by Independent.ie yesterday, but Mr Flanagan had kept his cards close to his chest until this morning.
It continues the flow of good news for Mr Varadkar.
He has again maintained a low profile today, after yesterday opting instead to send out a string of ministers, TDs and senators in a series of carefully choreographed media appearances.
Five Cabinet ministers have publicly backed his bid to succeed Enda Kenny with Mr Donohoe and Mr Flanagan the latest. Government chief whip Regina Doherty is expected to follow suit later today.
A tally of declared votes puts the Social Protection Minister 12 ahead within the parliamentary party, despite Mr Coveney's camp believing it would win this section of the electorate.
Mr Coveney said yesterday that 20 people signed his nomination papers but last night refused to publish the list, claiming some were not willing to go public yet. The show of strength from Mr Varadkar was a clear attempt to gain the early momentum and lure undecided TDs and senators to his camp.
It has continued this morning.
Paschal Donohoe said he is backing Mr Varadkar as he has the ability to "unite the country with a clear plan".
Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Donohoe said: "I will be supporting Leo Varadkar as he is the most capable politician of my generation and I believe that he has all of the qualities needed to lead Ireland into a future that has both great opportunities and new risks.
"I think Coveney is a very fine politician and I wish him the best of luck in his campaign but I believe that Leo has the qualities needed for this particular government now."
He added that Mr Varadkar has "a rare combination of intellect and judgement that I believe makes him best qualified for leader and Taoiseach".
Mr Donohoe said it's a "matter for the next Taoiseach" on whether or not a general election is held.
Speaking on RTE Morning Ireland, he said Mr Varadkar implemented a number of successful plans while in Government.
"As Minister for Transport he made the decision to go ahead with the Luas cross city works, as Minister for Health he organised the Gathering and expanded the GP cards for under 6s and over 68s. He also made the final decision on the National Children's Hospital."
Mr Donohoe called on his party colleagues to "support Leo as the leader of our country".
Mr Flanagan, the foreign affairs minister, has also pledged his support to Mr Varadkar, saying he "undoubtedly reflects a changing Ireland, a diverse Ireland".
Speaking to RTÉ's Sean O'Rourke show, Mr Flanagan said that Mr Varadkar is "courageous, dynamic and hard-working".
"I believe he has all the qualities to make a very good leader. We're fortunate to have two candidates of superior quality.
"Simon Coveney has been a great minister and he will continue to be, but I'm opting for Leo Varadkar."
Mr Flanagan said that Mr Varadkar is a "straight talker" who has the "capacity to reach out".
He added that "now is the time" for Mr Varadkar as young people across the world are taking up leadership positions such as Emmanuel Macron in France and Justin Trudeau in Canada.
"Now is the time for youth."
Earlier, Paul Keogh TD has also said that he will support Mr Varadkar.
Speaking on The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk, he said: "I've known Leo for many years, he's remained a very good friend and someone I greatly admire for his political skills, his personal skills and I am very proud to say that I will be supporting Leo Varadkar.
"I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with Simon Coveney, we're very lucky in Fine Gael to have two excellent candidates, it's a decision I've thought about and I will be supporting Leo.
"I have many reasons why I will be supporting Leo and I know he would make an excellent leader of the Fine Gael party and an excellent leader of this country."
He also claimed that some of Varadkar's achievements from his various ministerial positions show why he would be ideal to lead the party.
He said: "There are many crowning achievements that Leo Varadkar can be proud of from his ministerial roles.
"Leo was appointed Minister for Transport Tourism and Sport, he had industrial relations negotiations that were carried out extremely well.
"During the biggest recession of the history of the state, he oversaw The Gathering, which I believe was a major tourism initiative and had a major part in the recovery of our economy.
"He also was part of reducing the VAT rate for the hospitality sector, if you talk to any hotelier or anyone in the hospitality sector and they'll say that's one of the major reasons they can attract overseas visitors to Ireland.
"In health something that has been going for years is the development of the National Children's Hospital and under his leadership of health he finalised the location.
"The most important thing here is that as a father of three young children and thanks to decisions under Leo's leadership I will now have a National Children's Hospital to take them to and there are many other fathers and mothers and young children who are happy to see that decision made.
"When it comes to social protection, he has looked after the self-employed, a group no other Social Protection Minister has in a number of years.
"He introduced the social welfare increases in the last budget and more importantly as an urban TD he introduced the social scheme for farmers and fishermen.
"He has many accolades he can be proud of from his five or six years as a minister."
Deputy Fergus O'Dowd has said that he is also backing Varadkar for the role.
More to follow