Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has signalled to a meeting of his Fine Gael ministers that he would prefer the upcoming by-elections to be held in November, even if his party is unlikely to win any of them.
The loss of all four by-elections by Fine Gael would rob them of any momentum going into a general election campaign, which is expected within the next 12 months.
With growing uncertainty about when Mr Varadkar intends calling a general election, he told a meeting of his ministers recently that even if Fine Gael loses all four by-elections, in reality it would mean a loss of one.
“Three of the vacant seats are opposition seats so if we lose all four by-elections, it really is a reversal of one and we are a minority anyway so it is not that big a deal,” one minister said of Mr Varadkar’s comments.
However, ministers present also said Mr Varadkar did qualify his comments about the benefit of calling the general election before having to contest the by-elections in Cork North-Central, Wexford, Dublin Mid-West, and Dublin Fingal.
The writs for the polls needed to fill the vacancies created by the election of TDs Frances Fitzgerald, Billy Kelleher, Mick Wallace, and Clare Daly to the European Parliament must be moved by January 2.
Ms Fitzgerald was the only Fine Gael TD to win a seat in the European Parliament and party sources have conceded there is little hope of holding onto the seat she has vacated.
Several ministers also hit out at the likelihood of former minister and deputy leader James Reilly, now a senator, being the candidate in Fingal.
“Reilly is toxic,” said one minister, “but there is no other obvious candidate for us. So as of now it would look like it is Lorraine Clifford Lee of Fianna Fáil’s to lose.”
Since the local and European elections, Mr Varadkar has sent out mixed signals as to his intentions regarding a general election.
At a meeting of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, Mr Varadkar seemed to suggest that the by-elections would be overtaken by a snap general election.
“He told the room at the next election that all our faces will be on the ballot paper, which we all took as by-elections will not happen,” one source said.