“She’s 100% committed. He’ll just have to target someone else.” It may still officially be a polite, cordial oh-so-Fine Gael leadership race, but there is no mistaking the fact the gloves are slowly coming off in the fight to become taoiseach.
After holding a 10-minute press briefing before his latest grassroots meeting in Cavan last night, Simon Coveney turned to junior health minister Marcella Corcoran Kennedy and put his arm firmly around her.
Encouraging photographers to take a picture of the scene, Mr Coveney insisted his supporter — who leadership rival Leo Varadkar cheekily suggested may want to switch sides hours earlier because of her interest in healthy living policies — will be going nowhere.
The message came mere minutes after Mr Coveney predicted he can win the support of some or all of the seven TDs and MEPs who have yet to publicly back either candidate.
It was firmly hit home just moments after he insisted he will win the four nights of head-to-head debates with Mr Varadkar, which begin tomorrow.
And, while he repeatedly refused to say how many people he has been speaking to, who they are, and whether any have yet been swayed his way, Mr Coveney made it clear he believes those conversations can still force a dramatic leadership race U-turn, saying if just “half a dozen” change their minds, the contest will be on “a knife-edge”.
“There are some people who will change their mind and let’s wait and see,” said Mr Coveney.
“We only need a relatively small number of them to change their mind and I think this becomes a very competitive contest very quickly.
“Politicians often say they’ll do things, but their minds can be changed. All it will take to make this a knife-edge race is for half a dozen [TDs and senators] to change their minds.”
The points — made in Cavan, a constituency where both Arts Minister Heather Humphreys and senator Joe O’Reilly have backed Mr Varadkar — highlight the ratcheting up of tensions between the Coveney and Varadkar camps.
And while it remains to be seen whether come Friday week they will make any real difference, his supporters last night picked up the ball and ran with it.
Ms Corcoran Kennedy said recent days have shown that “Simon’s leadership qualities have been tested” as “on Saturday, when the going got really tough, the tough got going”.
Senator James Reilly, meanwhile, took pointed aim at Mr Varadkar.
“[Mr Coveney’s] ambition is for the party and the country, not just personal. He is for everyone, not just for everyone who gets out of bed early in the morning, but those who can’t,” said Mr Reilly.
“What is really important for the country is the character of the person [who becomes taoiseach], and their temperament. He is able to negotiate in a firm and polite way, without being antagonistic.”
Asked if there is growing tension between the candidates a week into the race, Mr Coveney demurred.
“No, not really actually. I spoke to [Mr Varadkar] before Cabinet today. It was the first time I’d spoken to him since the contest began formally. We’re professional. This will be a competitive contest, but it will be a respectful one... We said good luck.”
Not for much longer, one suspects.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved