Simon Harris' withdrawal boosts Simon Coveney’s FG leadership odds

Housing Minister Simon Coveney’s supporters are privately claiming a small victory after Health Minister Simon Harris formally ruled himself out of the Fine Gael leadership contest.

Mr Harris insisted yesterday he has a busy portfolio and, after consideration, has decided against competing to succeed Taoiseach Enda Kenny as party leader.

The decision by Mr Harris, who has worked closely with Mr Coveney across different departments, is seen as a boost to the Cork TD’s intention to run for the leadership.

Mr Harris refused yesterday to say who he will support when the race officially gets underway but he signalled that he would be “very active” about who he would back.

Sources close to Mr Harris say he privately believes that, despite the possibility of several candidates running, that this will now be effectively a “two-horse race”, run between Mr Coveney and Leo Varadkar, the Social Protection Minister.

Mr Kenny has signalled that he will deal with the Fine Gael leadership issue “conclusively” after St Patrick’s Day, following his visit to the US and the White House for the annual celebrations.

Recent polls have shown that Mr Coveney’s chances of winning are much less with a bigger number of candidates. Reduced numbers of candidates thus benefit his chances.

Mr Harris worked closely with Mr Coveney during government formation talks last year. Furthermore, he also had close contact with him when he was in charge of the Office of Public Works at a time when Mr Coveney headed up the Department of Agriculture.

Mr Harris said yesterday that he had thought about running and was “flattered” that colleagues had pressed him to enter the race, but concluded that the time was not right.

“I have a very busy portfolio which I am working quite hard at and frankly I don’t yet have enough experience,” he said.

The thought of putting his focus on issues beyond patients and frontline staff in the health service would be “inappropriate”, added the Wicklow TD.

He refused to say who he would back when the contest gets underway but said that once Enda Kenny indicates he is going, that he will be making it “very clear”.

Meanwhile, Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald has said that she is “seriously considering” putting her name forward in the leadership race, when one is announced.

The minister explained how there had been four candidates for the position in 2002 when there was last a formal leadership race within Fine Gael.

The four contenders then were Richard Bruton, Gay Mitchell, Phil Hogan, and Enda Kenny, after then-leader and current Finance Minister Michael Noonan stepped down.

Ms Fitzgerald said it was “important” to have a debate and that it would be “healthy” for Fine Gael.

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