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Sunday 20 January 2019

Enda's spat with Leo can have only one real winner

When Enda Kenny was a young schoolteacher in Mayo, one of his duties was to chase away rats with a shotgun.

There are times when the Taoiseach (below) seems to wish he could treat some of his ministers the same way.

By slapping down Leo Varadkar in public, Kenny has only succeeded in making himself look small - and fuelled fears that the gloss may be gone from his leadership for good.

Not for the first time, Leo's biggest sin is to actually tell people the truth. On Tuesday's Morning Ireland, the Minister for Health bluntly admitted that some of the policies he inherited from James Reilly are far too ambitious.

Instead of rushing ahead with introducing universal insurance and scrapping the HSE, he has set himself a more modest target - securing enough money in next month's budget to make sure that the health service does not collapse any further.

Kenny's response later that day was amazingly tetchy. Describing himself as "amused" while looking anything but, he accused Varadkar of providing "endless, endless volumes of why things can't be done".

Instead, he wants the Minister to come up with a new timetable for achieving all of Reilly's original reforms as quickly as possible.

Leo's comments about the Budget were not exactly 'on message' either. For several months now, Kenny has been dangling the carrot of serious tax relief for hard-pressed workers on October 14.

ageing

Now Varadkar is warning that thanks to a €500 million deficit in his department, we will be lucky to get an extra fiver in our weekly wage packets.

Why do Enda and Leo rub each other up the wrong way? One answer is their different positions on the career ladder.

Kenny is an ageing Taoiseach who will probably try to hang on until 2018 and succeed Michael D Higgins as president - while Varadkar obviously wants to run for the FG leadership when it becomes vacant.

Back in 2010, Varadkar was one of Richard Bruton's most enthusiastic supporters in the campaign to throw Kenny overboard. Leo even dared to suggest on RTE's Prime Time that Enda might make quite a good Minister for Foreign Affairs one day.

At a tense parliamentary party meeting reportedly Kenny singled Varadkar out for criticism, complaining, "I stood by you" - and their relationship has been distinctly cool ever since.

Earlier this year Leo's love of straight talking caused his leader to get hot under the collar again. He blew the justice scandals wide open by calling two garda whistleblowers "distinguished", not "disgusting" as the Garda Commissioner had dubbed them.

Enda ordered him to keep his opinions to himself, but the damage was done - and shortly afterwards both the commissioner and justice minister Alan Shatter were history.

The latest Enda-Leo spat is much more personal. Kenny groomed James Reilly for the health portfolio as long ago as 2007, supported all his wild ideas and backed him through a series of scandals.

It obviously stings the Taoiseach to hear that his faith in the bumbling GP was totally misplaced.

Sadly for Enda, however, the facts are on Leo's side. As we learned last week, even Reilly's own officials warned that his replacement plans for the HSE were "unworkable".

shaky

Perhaps Enda thinks he has sold Leo a hospital pass by sending him to the department often nicknamed 'Angola' - but so far the would-be leader has done a pretty good job of dodging all its landmines.

All this means that for Kenny, the new political season has got off to a shaky start. He already seems to be missing Big Phil Hogan, the former cabinet hard man who has left Irish politics for a plum job in the European Commission.

Our economy may be in recovery mode but the Taoiseach's poll ratings are not - and the ticking election countdown clock is making many of his backbenchers feel extremely nervous.

Like him or not, Leo Varadkar looks like the future of Fine Gael. Enda Kenny's petulant performance this week only confirms that he may soon belong to the past.

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