Leo Varadkar calls for TV debate as opening shots fired in Fine Gael leadership battle

The opening salvo has been fired in the Fine Gael leadership battle after Leo Varadkar called for a TV debate and took a swipe at rival Simon Coveney about when the upcoming contest will begin, writes Juno McEnroe and Elaine Loughlin.

Mr Varadkar also surprised Fine Gael figures when he signalled he had yet to have conversations with individuals about which ministers might be moved in any Cabinet reshuffle.

He said he was eager for the contest to begin to replace Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

“I’m certainly looking forward to getting my ideas out there both about how we can reform the party, how we can bring the country forward,” he said.

The social protection minister’s candid remarks came only a few hours after Mr Kenny took off from Dublin airport to begin a three-day trade mission to Canada, in what many believe will be his last trip abroad before announcing his resignation.

Leo Varadkar calls for TV debate as opening shots fired in Fine Gael leadership battle

One senior Fine Gael minister suggested yesterday that Mr Kenny could announce his intention to step aside and thereby trigger the start of the leadership contest after next week’s European People’s Party meeting in Wicklow, which would also follow the visit of Britain’s Prince Charles here.

“He goes out on a high. It’s been a good week with no Garda stuff, he’s coming back from Canada, after some dignitaries in town,” said the minister.

However, Mr Varadkar yesterday ignited debate on the contest.

Initially, he said he had yet to speak to Fine Gael figures about potential cabinet changes, an admission some party observers said smacked of presumption.

“I think before I answer any questions asked by the media about future positions that other people may hold, I should have a conversation with them first and I haven’t had those conversations,” admitted Mr Varadkar.

Nonetheless, the Dublin West TD did not hold back from expressing a desire to promote his views on the future of the country, especially during a televised broadcast.

“I’d be very happy to participate in a TV debate. When the contest does come, we are not just electing a Fine Gael leader, we’re also electing potentially the new Taoiseach of the country so it’s not just an internal matter for Fine Gael.

“It would certainly allow the public and also members of Fine Gael who can’t make it to the four hustings to have the opportunity to see a debate.”

Party insiders expect contenders to take part in at least four regional debates in June before the parliamentary party, councillors and members then vote for the winner.

However, party officials are cautious about divisive TV debates going ahead.

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar also took a swipe at Simon Coveney, the other main rival for leader, over the housing minister’s own estimates about when Mr Kenny may go.

“I’ve always said that the timeline is a matter for Enda Kenny, I’ve never departed from that position. I know Simon has talked about announcements being made shortly after St Patrick’s Day, about it being a matter of weeks rather than months. As far back as February he was saying that. I’ve actually never set a deadline and always said it is up to the Taoiseach.”

This surprised some Fine Gael parliamentarians, who are now preparing to decide who to back.

Meanwhile, Mr Coveney is expected to begin his leadership bid build-up next week. Sources in his team confirmed he will set in motion his strategy to be Taoiseach at two crucial meetings in Cork on Monday evening.

This is because of significant numbers of party members in some Cork constituencies. The members’ vote is 25% of the leadership count.

Mr Coveney will visit AGMs in Cork North Central and Cork North East on Monday. His supporters pointed out that while Dublin had more than 2,000 members spread out over 11 constituencies, the same numbers were in just three constituencies in Cork.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner.

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