Osborne ridiculed for putting up Chloe, 30, to explain 3p U-turn
Why did the Chancellor sacrifice a hapless junior last night? Because he's seen Armageddon in the Treasury forecasts
THE morning after the petrol tax give-away, George Osborne is being called a coward for allowing a junior Treasury minister to be mauled by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight as she attempted to explain his latest U-turn on the 3p rise in fuel duty.
The Westminster Twittersphere is swamped with horrified reaction of political bystanders to the "car-crash" disaster for Economic Secretary Chloe Smith on Newsnight (see video at foot of page).
Tim Shipman of the Daily Mail wrote: "I'm afraid that is one of the five worst ministerial interviews I have ever seen in 12 years in the lobby." Daily Politics presenter Andrew Neil asked: "Why did government send Chloe Smith into bat on c4news?"
The Mole can answer that. Osborne failed to go on because his latest U-turn is the clearest sign yet he thinks the UK economy is heading for the rocks. He has seen economic Armageddon in the Treasury's forecasts.
No wonder he failed to put himself up for interview by Paxo to defend his latest U-turn and instead pushed out 30-year-old Chloe, the youngest member of the government, on the end of a long pole to do the rounds of the studios.
Paxman asked Smith at the painful end: "Do you ever think you are incompetent?" But it was not just Paxman. She was left hopelessly floundering on Radio 4's PM programme with Eddie Mair and on Channel Four News.
She fluffed, choked and floundered when she was asked about the Chancellor's latest U-turn, and which department would pay for the delay in the fuel duty rise (it is being funded by a £4bn underspend across Whitehall).
Tory bloggers on the Conservativehome website were the most embarrassed. One said: "You would expect someone who used to work for a major firm of chartered accountants in a senior position to be able to answer this much better... It almost seemed cruel to hear this interview - squirming, out of depth, drowning."
Smith did produce one fact. The cost of stopping the 3p duty rise was originally put at £1.5bn for a full year. It is now put at £500 million because the rise has been delayed only until January.
But it is not Smith's fault that she appeared hapless. The old Labour bruiser Lord Prescott said Osborne should have had the guts to go out on the airwaves to defend his U-turn. Prezza tweeted: "Osborne sent a very junior minister. Coward."
Labour MP Huw Irranca-Davies tweeted rumours at Westminster that "Chloe Smith was sacrificed on Newsnight because Osborne was wining and dining Tory MPs in No 11? If true, despicable."
There is speculation that Osborne - panicked by a threat by Ed Balls to force a vote next week - simply caved in to The Sun campaign to stop the 3p duty rise. The Cabinet was not told at its morning meeting on Tuesday. Transport Minister Justine Greening was made to look a fool by defending the 3p rise on Monday.
The more worrying truth is that Osborne saw the latest figures showing borrowing had risen and tax receipts had fallen.
Sir Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, told MPs yesterday that he was "pessimistic" about the EU's prospects for sorting out the Eurozone crisis at tomorrow's EU summit.
Osborne knew he would be ridiculed and his credibility as Chancellor would be shot to pieces by another U-turn after the pasty tax, the charity tax, the caravan tax and the churches tax that made up the omnishambles Budget - but still he went ahead with the announcement.
The economic forecasts left him no option. If David Cameron is sunnier than usual at PMQs today we will know why - it really is that bad.