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Irish PM's popularity surges as Brexit takes center stage: poll


DUBLIN (Reuters) - Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar's approval rating has jumped sharply as voters back his government's approach on Brexit ahead of a parliamentary election he wants to hold in May, a poll showed on Tuesday.

However, the surge in Varadkar's popularity to 51% from 36% in May failed to give the governing Fine Gael a similar bump in the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, although it is still the leading party.

The center-right party chose Varadkar as leader in 2016 based on his personal appeal and hope a Brexit deal, which would leave Irish businesses less exposed to turmoil than a disorderly exit, could boost his credentials at the election.

The poll was conducted in the three days after Varadkar's meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson which led to a potential breakthrough in the Brexit stalemate as the latest deadline for its departure from the EU on Oct. 31 nears.

Satisfaction with Ireland's Brexit strategy rose to 60% from 54% and satisfaction with the government jumped 11 points to 42%, a week after it opted for a "no-deal" Brexit budget that set aside funds for exposed businesses instead of repeating the kind of tax cuts and spending increases of recent years.

The survey did not detail specific points on the strategy in Ireland, whose seamless border with British-run Northern Ireland has been at the center of the Brexit impasse. Varadkar insists it must remain fully open once Britain leaves the bloc.

The survey put Fine Gael on 29%, four points ahead of its nearest rival Fianna Fail with the left wing Sinn Fein a distant third on 14%.

The two big parties are closely matched in most polls, increasingly the likelihood that whoever edges ahead at the next election will lead another minority government.

Varadkar's popularity had slid in successive Ipsos MRBI polls since it hit 60% in January 2018 after an initial Brexit breakthrough, the highest mark any leader had achieved since Ireland's financial crisis a decade ago damaged trust in its politicians.

At 51%, Varadkar was by far the most popular leader in the poll with Fianna Fail's Micheal Martin his closet rival on 38%.

(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Alison Williams)

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