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Harris Is on Course to Be Irish Premier as Rivals Clear Path

(Bloomberg) -- Ireland’s higher education and science minister, Simon Harris, is on course to become the country’s youngest-ever premier after key potential rivals in the race to succeed outgoing leader Leo Varadkar opted not to stand.

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Harris, 37, who announced he would stand for the party leadership position Thursday, has secured several high-profile backers, including Minister of State Neale Richmond and European Parliament member Frances Fitzgerald.

His bid to become head of the Fine Gael party and the country’s next Taoiseach got a boost on Thursday when Paschal Donohoe, minister for public expenditure and president of the Eurogroup, said he would not put his name forward.

“I’m in — I want to be the next leader of Fine Gael, I’m ready to step up and I’m ready to serve,” Harris told RTE news.

Another possible contender, Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys, told broadcaster RTE she would give Harris her full support. Other potential riders have already dropped out, meaning his appointment looks likely in early April.

Varadkar set off a leadership race on Wednesday when he unexpectedly announced he would step down after seven years in office. The next election must be held by March 2025, leaving his replacement less than 12 months to turn around Fine Gael’s dwindling support and tackle housing and immigration challenges.

“There comes a time when we need to move on and you need to make space for new people, new ideas, and new energy,” Varadkar told reporters on Thursday, adding that part of the reason he stepped down was the timing of the next national vote.

Fine Gael, which leads a government coalition with two other parties, will be keen to ensure their next leader provides stability. It suffered surprise defeats this month in referendums to change outdated language on women and the family, and it faces a major housing crisis and rising tensions over how to accommodate an increase in asylum seekers.

These challenges are also feeding support for main opposition party Sinn Fein, whose core tenet is the reunification of Ireland and which hopes to take power for the first time.

Speaking ahead of a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels, Varadkar said the referendum results “didn’t really impact his decision.” He added that he would respect his party’s tradition of outgoing leaders not endorsing a successor.

With more than a decade of political experience, having first been elected in 2011, Harris has risen through the ranks of his party and is seen as a competent minister. He would beat the record of Varadkar, who became Ireland’s youngest-ever prime minister aged 38.

“He’s a very, very capable individual,” former Irish ambassador to the US Daniel Mulhall told Bloomberg’s UK Politics podcast on Thursday, adding that Harris had “wowed” people in the City of London when he was a young junior minister for financial services.

--With assistance from Ailbhe Rea and Caroline Hepker.

(Updates with Harris comment in the fourth paragraph.)

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