Osborne under attack over ‘panic at pumps’

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Chancellor George Osborne was yesterday branded an “arrogant coward” by a Conservative backbencher after sending a junior Treasury Minister into the TV studios to defend his £550m decision to delay the 3p hike in fuel duty.

Labour said that the Chancellor had “hid away” after making the surprise announcement to the House of Commons that the rise planned for August would be held back at least until January, apparently without warning colleagues.

But Prime Minister David Cameron dismissed the charge, saying it was right for Mr Osborne to announce his decisions on taxation to MPs in Parliament.

At Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, Labour leader Ed Miliband mocked Mr Cameron over the decision, which he branded “another case of panic at the pumps”.

Mr Miliband claimed stopping the 3p increase was proof that “plan A was not working” and mockingly asked whether the handling of the announcement was part of a “seamless political strategy”.

Eyebrows were raised around Westminster when the Chancellor made his announcement, as it came just a day after the Transport Secretary Justine Greening publicly defended the rise and hours after Labour’s Ed Balls demanded that it be stopped.

It soon became clear that Mr Osborne had not briefed Cabinet earlier in the day.

And junior Treasury minister Chloe Smith fuelled suspicions that it came as a surprise to Ministers when she repeatedly declined to say when she first learnt about it in a widely-criticised interview on BBC2’s Newsnight.

When Ms Smith confirmed that cutting the deficit remained the Government’s top priority, Paxman responded: “Is this some sort of joke? How can you possibly have as a number one priority cutting the deficit when you choose to spend an underspend on funding a tax cut?”

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries – a vocal critic of the Tory leadership – was scathing about Mr Osborne’s decision not to take to the airwaves himself to defend his decision. In a series of messages on Twitter, Ms Dorries wrote: “If Osborne sent Chloe on re scrapping 3p he is a coward as well as arrogant. Newsnight last night would have been a tough gig for a Minister with years of experience – Chloe is a good egg and didn’t deserve that.”