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Pitiful bluster from the Dail's fading star

It's often said of controversial political figures that if they didn't exist their enemies would have to invent them. Leo Varadakar is different. He exists, but his critics invented him anyway, in the form of a fake Twitter account bearing his name, which transmits a steady stream of rude, politically incorrect messages, most of which consist of Pretend Leo telling us to stop moaning about the recession.

The character of the Fine Gael Transport Minister which emerges from the rogue tweets is a sort of vainglorious Marie Antoinette figure, telling the breadless peasants to eat cake instead, and just generally Not Getting It; insisting, for example, that raising the price of public transport is a win-win situation because the poor would have to walk and "who wants to sit next to a poor person on the bus anyway?". Insofar as such send-ups work only if they nail something true about the target, Varadkar ought to be worried that so many people have fallen for the fake -- or, worse, find it more appealing.

The real Leo didn't exactly do much to shuffle out from under the shadow of his fictional alter ego last week with his actual comments about the imminent Budget. Varadkar first insisted that we should all hit the shops to avoid the rise in VAT in the New Year -- sure, he was planning on replacing a computer and some old suits himself. A few days later, he added for good measure that the only people facing pay cuts this year were Government ministers and senior civil servants and that the vast majority of families had nothing to fear save a €100 household charge, two per cent extra on "a new TV or fridge", and "that's about

it". He concluded chirpily: "That means people will be able to take a holiday, which they might not have been able to afford this year."

Holidays? Holidays?! He was joking, right? For a moment, had his antennae accidentally started picking up signals from Pretend Leo? Please tell us that it's so. But no, apparently Minister Varadkar meant it. Talk about putting the ass into crass.

If people couldn't afford a holiday this year, how are they going to budget for one next year, with inflation rising and incomes stagnant, at best? Even those who did take a holiday this summer might be planning to cut back next summer in the face of shrinking confidence. Unemployment has risen again to 14.5 per cent; average incomes were down 5 per cent between 2009 and 2010 (that statistic was published on the very day Varadkar was making his ' la la land' comments about holidays); according to the Irish Tax Institute, the losses faced by the average family through four austerity budgets are set to double by 2015; one in five shoppers is planning to do their Christmas shopping north of the Border ... Feel like planning a holiday now? Nah, didn't think so.

The fact that Leo Varadkar was urging Irish people to shop early to dodge the VAT rises suggests that not even the Government believes in what it's doing. The infamous document shown to the German Parliament estimated that raising the top rate of VAT would generate €0.67bn in extra revenue, but it's not going to raise anything if shoppers buy in advance to avoid it.

Varadkar's intervention was an admission that raising VAT is a deterrent to normal trade, but if he and his colleagues recognise that it's a deterrent, why are they doing it? They make it sound as if the VAT rise is an out-of-control juggernaut heading towards a group of defenceless pedestrians, with Leo & Co frantically warning the victims to leap out of the way, when in truth it's they who are driving the truck.

For a while last week, Leo blustered and tried to say he was simply promoting domestic tourism when he told the Irish people to eat cake/take a holiday, using the fact that he made his remarks at the launch of a new tourism campaign as cover. It was a pitiful excuse from a man who once seemed so sharp and so clever, but whose decline in office has been so swift that it doesn't come as a surprise anymore.

Certainly if there was an award for Most Disappointing Politician in the 31st Dail, Leo Varadkar would have the title in the bag. He talked a good fight in opposition -- a follower of that fake Twitter account has even posted a link to a video of the minister promising, pre-election, that the "banks aren't getting another cent". Clearly his determination to burn the bondholders crumbled as easily as did his resistance to Enda Kenny when Richard Bruton's putsch against the FG leader fizzled out in ignominious defeat.

Inside, he must know that the present strategy to fight the recession by kowtowing to Europe and paying hush money to the public sector unions is a ludicrous amalgam of cowardice and madness, but still he won't speak up, contenting himself instead with moving the deckchairs around on board the sinking ship of state.

His supporters (a dwindling bunch these days) say what can little Leo do, a humble cog in the massive grinding wheel of a coalition government, but that does rather invite the question: if there's nothing he can do, why should anyone go on believing in him? Voting for him? Listening to a word he says? He can't change the world but he could speak out in defence of the values which presumably impelled him into politics, rather than meekly enforcing Fianna Fail's old policies, not least when FF itself has ditched them as unfit for present purposes and moved on to a better place.

The one consolation is that, while he may be the most disappointing politician in the Dail, the person who's probably most disappointed is Leo himself. He must have expected so much more, so much better, from Government, from himself.

The disillusionment is only destined to get deeper, because those who think biting their tongues and biding their time will one day make the leadership fall into their lap often find, when the time comes, that it's someone else's time which has arrived, not theirs.

Sunday Independent