Varadkar set for a landslide as Coveney's campaign implodes
Leo Varadkar is set for a free run to become the first Dublin Taoiseach since Bertie Ahern, with rival Simon Coveney's campaign in disarray.
Mr Varadkar has secured the support of half of the Fine Gael party - even before the close of nominations today.
There is now the real prospect of Mr Coveney being left with no option but to withdraw from the leadership battle, with TDs, senators and MEPs expected to endorse his rival over the next 72 hours.
The developments yesterday included:
• Several high-profile ministers, including Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, joined Team Varadkar.
• Senior sources in the Coveney camp accused Mr Varadkar of offering ministries in return for votes.
• High-level Fine Gael sources predicted a Varadkar landslide.
• Finance Minister Michael Noonan told colleagues he will not publicly back either candidate.
During the second full day of campaigning, Mr Varadkar formally launched his bid on the aptly named Leo Avenue in Dublin's north inner city.
He was flanked by one of his most high-profile backers, Mr Donohoe, who described him as the "most capable politician of my generation".
However, Mr Varadkar performed a U-turn on his plan to retire from politics by the age of 51, saying he is now a career politician.
The Social Protection Minister said in 2015 that he had an "exit strategy" because he "definitely" wanted to do something else.
However, as he made his first public appearance since the start of the Fine Gael leadership race, Mr Varadkar (38) said he is now in it for the long haul.
"I'm absolutely committed to politics. So long as I feel I'm committed to politics and I do feel I'm making a difference, it's going to be a job and a career for me. So long as the people want me," he said.
There were awkward scenes in Co Clare as the constituency's two Fine Gael TDs refused to say whether they were backing Mr Coveney.
However, last night Pat Breen declared his support for Mr Varadkar, while Joe Carey is expected to do so today.
Mr Coveney was asked by reporters if he knew which way Mr Breen and Mr Carey would vote and his response was awkward.
"I don't expect them to declare right here," he said. "I'm not going to be putting people under pressure in the spotlight of the media."
Neither Mr Breen nor Mr Carey had declared at the time, and they remained silent while standing beside Mr Coveney as he was being asked questions.
"I'll be having conversations with Pat and Joe just like I've had with all of the other members of the parliamentary party and they'll make their choices and I'll respect those choices," Mr Coveney said.
Put to him that he could do with their support, he indicated that the campaign had only just begun.
"We have a contest under way," he said. "Leo's off to a good start, but there's two weeks to go so we'll see how it plays out."
Mr Coveney did get a boost yesterday after TDs Hildegarde Naughton, Peter Fitzpatrick and Sean Barrett backed him.
However, far more TDs - including Defence Minister Paul Kehoe and Waterford TD John Deasy - came out in favour of Mr Varadkar.
It remains to be seen how Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald will vote, but sources say she will endorse her Dublin colleague.
That means Mr Varadkar could reach 60pc of the vote by Monday, presenting his rival with an impossible task.
Despite this, Mr Coveney has insisted he will not pull out of the race.