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Simon Harris gestures as he is confirmed as the new leader of Fine Gael, paving the way for him to become Ireland's youngest premier, in Athlone, Ireland, on March 24.Eamon Ward/The Associated Press

Simon Harris became Irish prime minister in waiting on Sunday, pledging to help small business, focus on law and order and tackle migration after his unopposed election to succeed Leo Varadkar as leader of the governing Fine Gael party.

Mr. Harris, a 37-year-old minister best known for helping steer the country’s initial response to COVID-19, will be voted in as Ireland’s youngest ever prime minister when parliament next sits on April 9 thanks to support from coalition partners.

He will have no more than a year to save the coalition from defeat at parliamentary elections. Polls for the last three years have put Sinn Fein, a left-wing party that backs unification with British-run Northern Ireland, as the favourite to head the next government.

“This is a moment for Fine Gael to reset,” Mr. Harris told hundreds of members at a packed party event in the midlands town of Athlone.

“Under my leadership, Fine Gael stands for supporting businesses, especially small businesses ... Fine Gael stands for supporting the family farm ... Fine Gael stands for law and order, on the side of An Garda Siochána (police), where our streets are safe and crime is never allowed go unchecked.”

After months of speculation that Mr. Varadkar would opt for an early election later this year, Mr. Harris told reporters he intended to run a full term to March 2025.

Mr. Varadkar announced his departure to widespread shock on Wednesday, catching even his closest political allies by surprise, saying Fine Gael would stand a better chance of re-election under another leader.

Mr. Harris has spoken in recent days of how he became involved in politics as an “opinionated, moody teenager” annoyed at the lack of educational supports for his autistic brother. He has sought to paint himself as an “accidental politician,” even though he has spent most of his adult life in parliament.

He is one of Ireland’s most visible government ministers and a strong media performer. His keen social media presence led one opponent in parliament to dub Mr. Harris the “TikTok taoiseach” (Irish for prime minister).

While the economy grew strongly under Mr. Varadkar, successive governments, of which Mr. Harris has been part, have struggled to tackle a decade-long housing crisis and, more recently, the pressure from record numbers of asylum seekers and refugees.

Mr. Harris said Ireland needed to move to a “more planned, sustainable” migration model and a system that is “fair and firm.”

He is also under pressure from members to better define Fine Gael’s offering to voters.

“I do think he has to possibly focus back more on Fine Gael core values,” said party member Mary McDonagh, urging Mr. Harris to help struggling rural hospitality businesses and “disaffected” farmers.

Inheriting a three-party coalition government working off an agreed policy program will give Mr. Harris little room for any major new policy initiatives.

Two more polls on Sunday confirmed a recent trend of support for Sinn Fein dropping off highs of 12-18 months ago, though they again broadly showed smaller parties and independent candidates as the beneficiaries over the government parties.

A Business Post/Red C poll conducted before Mr. Varadkar’s exit put Sinn Fein’s lead over a stalling Fine Gael at 6 percentage points, while an Irish Independent/Ireland Thinks survey after he quit showed a 5-point edge after a small rise for Fine Gael.

Two of Fine Gael’s 33 lawmakers called on Mr. Harris to scrap proposed laws on hate crime and later opening hours for bars and nightclubs as a signal it is moving back to the centre-right.

“We have been too left for too long,” veteran lawmaker and former minister Michael Ring told national broadcaster RTE.

“If he doesn’t take that opportunity (to make changes), Fine Gael and Simon Harris will pay a big price over the next number of months.”

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