Varadkar suffers blow in leadership race as 'Judas' claims sweep through the FG ranks
- Bruton planning leadership bid
- Fitzgerald to bow out of race
- Noonan comments spark fury
- Coveney gives Kenny space
Leo Varadkar's prospects of becoming the next Taoiseach have suffered a setback after he faced accusations of spearheading a secret campaign to oust Enda Kenny.
A growing number of Fine Gael politicians believe Mr Varadkar has been orchestrating a behind-the-scenes plot designed to ensure Mr Kenny's swift removal as Fine Gael leader.
One Cabinet source said there was a "Judas Iscariot" element to the campaign being run by Mr Varadkar.
A second minister agreed, saying he believed Mr Varadkar was encouraging TDs to publicly express no confidence in Mr Kenny.
The allegations against Mr Varadkar began to surface on Monday, when Dublin North West Noel Rock became the first TD to call on Mr Kenny to announce his plans to step aside.
But the speculation that Mr Varadkar is actively campaigning to remove Mr Kenny grew after it emerged he despatched a prominent junior minister to distance himself from Mr Rock's comments in correspondence with journalists.
Sources close to the Social Protection Minister have rejected the charge of trying to oust Mr Kenny. The alleged approach taken by Mr Varadkar contrasts sharply with the strategy being adopted by Housing Minister Simon Coveney, who yesterday insisted Mr Kenny should be given ample time and space to step aside.
Mr Coveney believes that his prospects will be enhanced if he is seen as allowing Mr Kenny to decide his own fate. The Cork South Central TD has even told supporters within the parliamentary party to publicly declare their support for Mr Kenny ahead of a potential motion of no confidence. Mr Coveney's close supporters include junior minister Damien English and Dún Laoghaire TD Maria Bailey.
Meanwhile, supporters of Mr Varadkar last night expressed deep concern about the perception of him being responsible for the deep uncertainty that has engulfed Fine Gael.
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While the vast majority of TDs want Mr Kenny to step aside in the coming weeks, there is a strong view that he should be allowed to go on his own terms and after his visit to the White House.
In further developments yesterday, Dublin Fingal's Alan Farrell became the latest TD to say he has no confidence in Mr Kenny. And sources in the Varadkar camp said they expected other TDs to follow suit.
However, the party's vice-chairman Pat Deering is understood to be veering away from tabling a no confidence motion at Wednesday's parliamentary party meeting to allow Mr Kenny "space" to announce his own exit strategy.
The Taoiseach attended a Brexit forum in Dublin Castle yesterday - but didn't address the leadership issue.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan did, however, intervene, saying it could be weeks until a leadership change takes place. "There is no vacancy yet, as you know," he told reporters. "There's a long time before a new leader is selected..."
The move sparked anger among the Fine Gael ranks, with one Cabinet source saying: "Mr Noonan needs to realise he himself is toast."
Meanwhile, Education Minister Richard Bruton refused to rule out throwing his hat in the ring.
Sources say Mr Bruton is being encouraged by supporters to enter the race as a "compromise candidate".
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Mr Bruton emphasised that Mr Kenny had indicated he did not intend to lead Fine Gael into the next election, but added: "I think he has earned the right to choose his time."
In an indication that the Fine Gael party is in trouble, Mr Bruton said: "I think people have acknowledged that we are vulnerable and I suppose that has to be a factor he [Mr Kenny] takes into account".
But he added: "I think it's the wrong thing to be doing to be putting down motions of no confidence ... in a Taoiseach that has served the country so well." Asked if he would contest the leadership Mr Bruton replied: "I'm not contemplating at this stage any of those issues."
Meanwhile, there is a growing view within Fine Gael that Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald will not seek the leadership and will back one of the two frontrunners. She is likely to have established she doesn't have the support to mount a real challenge.
Health Minister Simon Harris has told supporters that he is considering entering the race. Ministers Charlie Flanagan and Paschal Donohoe both withdrew.
Fine Gael chairman Martin Heydon last night emailed TDs and senators appealing for them to stop making comments about Mr Kenny. He told colleagues he was "greatly concerned" the Taoiseach "is not being shown the respect his service and his office deserve" and added: "Such comments ultimately hurt our party."
Deputy leader James Reilly warned rebel TDs they were "undermining" the work of the Government".