Simon Coveney’s campaign team have urged grassroots Fine Gael members to “turn” national politicians supporting Leo Varadkar, after two Clare TDs controversially backed his rival just hours after the Housing Minister visited their constituency.

Team members made the claim as they insisted the race to replace Enda Kenny is not over and that they were always expecting to focus on councillor and grassroots support to gain power.

In a deeply controversial move last night, junior minister for employment Pat Breen and TD Joe Carey confirmed in separate statements they will back Mr Varadkar as they believe he is best suited to lead Fine Gael and the country.

While both TDs said the decisions had been made a number of weeks ago, they were publicly revealed just hours after Mr Coveney spent the day in Clare discussing housing policy and attending the Clare Fine Gael branch agm — with Mr Breen saying the delay was “out of respect” for the housing minister.

Despite Mr Coveney receiving the backing of ex-ceann comhairle Sean Barrett, Galway West TD Hildegarde Naughton and Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick yesterday, the additions of the two Clare TDs and a host of ministers and backbenchers for Mr Varadkar means there is a 40-20 parliamentary party gap between the rivals.

And with just 13 crucial votes among TDs, MEPs and senators still up for grabs, Mr Coveney’s team have now turned their attention to councils and grassroots members in a bid to rescue their faltering campaign.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner last night before Mr Breen and Mr Carey’s decisions were revealed, Mr Coveney’s close confidante senator Tim Lombard said the campaign team was always focused on “sweeping” up county council support as a way to wrestle control of the race back in their favour, and said he expects a number of Mr Varadkar’s TD supporters to “veer and reconsider” their positions after local supporters “turn” them this weekend.

“The first thing is no vote has been cast. Everything is still technically up for grabs,” he said, noting there is a difference between a TD declaring support and formally voting in favour of either candidate.

While it is believed Mr Coveney’s team is privately urging Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald and Finance Minister Michael Noonan to publicly back him, Mr Lombard said the key focus is now on councils.

Due to the current 40-20 parliamentary party support split, Mr Coveney needs to win 61.8% of available council votes to have any chance of becoming the next taoiseach.

A separate campaign team member said the reality that one parliamentary party vote is the equivalent of three councillors and 600 ordinary members means it is getting “technically difficult” to catch Mr Varadkar. The source said “we are not chasing the high-30s [of TDs, senators and MEPs] anymore”, but insisted “we’re still focused on Plan A”.

Meanwhile, Mr Coveney — who will hold a major campaign rally at the Capitol Building on Grand Parade in Cork City at 8pm tonight — was yesterday strongly backed by ex-ceann comhairle Sean Barrett. He praised Mr Coveney’s “character and temperament”, emphasised his European and negotiating skills experience, and gave a thinly veiled criticism of TDs and senators backing Mr Varadkar in return for personal promises.

Simon Coveney’s team aims to make gains with grassroots

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