Housing minister Simon Coveney believes he now has enough support in the three-part electoral college of Fine Gael to win the upcoming leadership contest.
His campaign team believe “negative spinning” from fellow contender Leo Varadkar, the Social Protection Minister, has helped boost their support. The Housing Minister is also keen to tweak the partnership government deal with Fianna Fáil if he is made Taoiseach.
His team believe electing Mr Coveney would keep the coalition going for a least another 18 months, could boost Fine Gael’s election hopes outside Dublin, and that Mr Coveney has more experience and achievements than his main opponent.
The disclosures by sources inside his campaign team now have effectively fired the starting gun on the contest to succeed Enda Kenny.
One senior member in Mr Coveney’s camp told the Irish Examiner: “A few months ago it was Leo’s to lose, it is now 50/50 and the momentum is with Simon.”
The Coveney camp say tracking conversations and pledges from the Fine Gael electorate means they now believe the Corkman is in a position to become the next leader of the country.
Voting in the Fine Gael electoral college system is made up by 65% of the 73 parliamentarians including TDs, senators, and MEPs, 25% for the 20,000 ordinary party members, and 10% for the 232 party councillors.
Fine Gael figures believe Mr Kenny will make his intentions known within two weeks.
Mr Coveney’s campaign team have now calculated which parliamentarians, councillors, and members are on his side and believe that when the contest begins that he will get more support than Mr Varadkar.
His supporters point to his experience, credentials, and work in Government. This includes how he managed the current coalition talks with the Independent Alliance, the rent caps, the fight on water charges with Fianna Fáil, and the housing crisis.
Supporters are dispelling claims Fine Gael must have a leader from Dublin and note 23 of 26 seats lost in 2016 were outside the capital.
“The gains in the next election are likely to be outside Dublin. He is well-placed to oversee those,” said a senior campaign source. Coveney supporters also claim the country does not want an election and there would be less of a chance of a snap vote with a Coveney win.
In particular, Mr Coveney’s leadership strategists claim that negative spinning from Mr Varadkar’s camp is now playing into their favour. Strategists point to recently leaked constituency reviews and Mr Varadkar’s apparent swipe this week at Mr Coveney’s on when Mr Kenny would go.
“This is counter-productive and playing into Simon’s side. It smacks of... desperation,” said the source.
However, sources in Mr Varadkar’s camp denied any claims last night, saying it was Mr Coveney’s team that was engaged in “negative briefing”.
“We’re increasingly confident. A lot more people have come on board. This is conjecture on their part about it [the race]”.
Meanwhile, Fine Gael HQ is putting final touches to the election contest. Under provisional plans, nominations for candidates would be made within three days of Mr Kenny’s announcement.
A candidate will need the support of eight parliamentarians. Four hustings are planned, including in Cork and Dublin, between days 10 and 18. The contest would last 21 days, towards the end of which councillors and members would vote in 28 locations. Only then will the parliamentarians cast their deciding votes.
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