herald

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Varadkar steals march on rivals as race to be next FG leader begins

Minister Leo Varadkar Picture: Tony Gavin
Minister Leo Varadkar Picture: Tony Gavin

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar has emerged as the clear front-runner in the race to succeed Enda Kenny as Taoiseach - a contest that will be decided predominantly by Fine Gael TDs.

Mr Varadkar has stolen a headstart on his nearest rivals, Housing Minister Simon Coveney and Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald, by constantly phoning colleagues to discuss their concerns, as well as entertaining fellow TDs on nights out.

A lunchtime statement by the Dublin West TD yesterday also went down well among backbenchers, as it called for calm heads in relation to the upcoming leadership process.

"The Taoiseach has made clear he will not lead the party in a future general election," it said. "This means there will be a leadership election at a future date. That will be the appropriate time to deal with the issue of the leadership of Fine Gael. The vacancy won't arise until the Taoiseach decides it should."

The statement was released just hours after Chief Whip Regina Doherty stunned party colleagues when she told The Michael Reade Show on LMFM that Mr Kenny should clarify his intentions to avoid confusion.

"Unless there's clarification of the process laid out, there will be confusion," she said. "Otherwise you're going to have me and the other 49 members of Fine Gael telling you something different. It would be fair if the Taoiseach clarified this so we could get back to normal."

Bizarrely, Ms Doherty gave the interview while the Dail faced being abandoned because there weren't enough TDs present. Ms Doherty's job as Chief Whip is to ensure that there is a quorum of 20 TDs.

She is understood to have infuriated Fine Gael bosses with her failure to ensure deputies were present.

Contest

The Herald understands that Ceann Comhairle Sean O'Fearghail was ready to suspend the Dail had a quorum not been reached within four minutes.

Meanwhile, it is now widely accepted within the party that Mr Kenny will spell out his departure plan after the Budget, with a contest expected to conclude as early as the spring.

However, no candidates are prepared to launch a heave.

Mr Kenny is not due to speak on the matter until Tuesday at the earliest, when he travels to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Other contenders also released statements on the issue yesterday. Ms Fitzgerald said the issue of a vacancy is a matter for Mr Kenny - but did not rule herself out of contention.

Meanwhile, speaking in Brussels, Mr Coveney said: "There isn't a leadership contest in Fine Gael right now, there isn't going to be any time soon."

Asked if Mr Kenny would make it past the Budget, he replied: "I think Enda Kenny's going to be around for some time yet."

Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Health Minister Simon Harris are also believed to be consulting supporters. Leadership voting in Fine Gael is split between 65pc Parliamentary Party, 25pc membership and 10pc councillors.

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