Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar’s “shock and awe” start to his leadership campaign has given him an early but decisive lead over Housing Minister Simon Coveney in the race to become Taoiseach.
After the first day of the campaign, Mr Varadkar held a 31-17 lead over Mr Coveney in terms of publicly declared members of the parliamentary party.
Mr Coveney admitted it was “not a surprise” that he appeared to be behind at the end of he first day of campaigning.
“None of the mains that have declared for Leo are a surprise,” he told RTÉ’s Prime Time, adding that his team remains “relaxed”.
In a highly orchestrated series of announcements, Mr Varadkar landed the support of Cabinet ministers Richard Bruton, Heather Humphreys, and Mary Mitchell O’Connor.
This morning, Mr Varadkar’s campaign is to be further boosted by the backing of Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe, whose influence in Fine Gael has grown significantly in recent months.
Mr Coveney has secured the public support of just one Cabinet colleague — Health Minister Simon Harris — but his supporters point to the fact that a large portion of the party has yet to declare.
While the gap in support after 24 hours of official campaigning has worried some, Mr Coveney’s supporters said they were last night boosted by the fact 28 of 31 councillors in Cork and Kerry have confirmed support for their candidate.
Launching his campaign, Mr Coveney hit back at claims he lacks charisma, saying a new Taoiseach does not need an “X factor” but needs to deliver.
Speaking in Dublin yesterday at the formal launch of his campaign to succeed Enda Kenny, Mr Coveney was supported by Mr Harris and ministers of state Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Damien English, and David Stanton. Mr Coveney said his message will be built around “strong, positive government with big ideas”.
In a measured address, he said: “As far as I’m concerned I’m fighting for the soul of this party.”
Heading into a meeting of Fine Gael executive council last night, parliamentary party chairman Martin Heydon said the shorter-than-expected lead-in time to voting had caused difficulty in securing venues, with many hotels booked out for weddings and other events next weekend.
“The time period is a little bit tighter than had been originally scheduled and, despite previous media reports, there wasn’t hotels booked for any set date, so we didn’t have any confirmation of dates until the Taoiseach indicated his intention to step down,” said Mr Heydon.
Both Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Education Minister Richard Bruton announced they would not be running yesterday, narrowing the race down to a two-man contest.
Ms Fitzgerald said on Twitter that she had been “touched” by the encouragement and support she received but had decided against entering the race.
Speaking outside the Department of Education, Mr Bruton said he had given some consideration to running but concluded that both Mr Coveney and Mr Varadkar “offer the best opportunity at this time to provide leadership”.
He then endorsed Mr Varadkar as leader, claiming he is “decisive, he is reforming, he has great capacity to deliver, and has shown a track record of doing that”.
Before any votes are cast there will be four regional debates, or hustings.
The campaign was overshadowed by a Dáil row during which it was claimed that Mr Kenny will leave office with a lump sum payment of €378,000 and an annual pension of €126,000.
Mr Donohoe, taking leaders’ questions, rounded on the opposition claims.
Meanwhile, veteran Finance Minister Michael Noonan announced that he was bowing out of politics after almost four decades.
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