David Cameron denies George Osborne 'hid' after fuel U-turn

Speaking on BBC Newsnight Chloe Smith told Jeremy Paxman scrapping the fuel duty increase had been under consideration for some time

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The prime minister has denied George Osborne "hid" after he revealed a rise in fuel duty was being delayed.

It follows Tory MP Nadine Dorries' accusation the chancellor was a "coward" for letting junior minister Chloe Smith face a Newsnight grilling over the policy change, instead of him.

At PM's questions, Mr Cameron said that, far from "hiding away" Mr Osborne had made the fuel announcement to MPs.

It is reported ministers were unaware of the fuel duty move beforehand.

Nadine Dorries, who has spoken out against Mr Osborne in the past, tweeted that Ms Smith "did not deserve" to face such an interview, adding that if he had sent her on to the BBC programme "he is a coward as well as arrogant".

Her comments were repeated at Prime Minister's Questions by Labour leader Ed Miliband, who accused the chancellor of refusing to justify the change of mind over fuel duty himself.

"The chancellor yesterday sent out the economic secretary to do all the interviews on this issue," Mr Miliband said.

Mr Cameron replied: "The leader of the opposition says the chancellor was 'hiding away'... he was actually here (in the House of Commons), making the announcement."

The Labour leader claimed Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne had failed to inform ministers and MPs of the change and called it "another case of panic at the pumps".

The prime minister said Mr Miliband should be congratulating the government "for being on the side of the motorist and people who work hard and do the right thing".

Road users' groups, the Sun newspaper, opposition parties and several Conservative MPs had been pushing for the fuel duty change, amid concerns that prices at the pumps were squeezing living standards.

Last week Prime Minister David Cameron said the planned duty rise would be "looked at", but held out little hope for a delay, saying: "I think people sitting at home know that the government doesn't have a bottomless pit of money."

'Running commentary'

But on Tuesday, the chancellor announced the postponement of the 3p-a-litre duty rise, saying: "We are on the side of working families and businesses and this will fuel our recovery at this very difficult economic time for the world."

The cost of not bringing in the rise in August is expected to be between £500m and £600m.

Speaking on the BBC's Newsnight programme, Ms Smith, economic secretary to the Treasury, was asked a number of times when she was told of the decision to postpone the rise.

PMQs: Miliband accuses Cameron of 'panic at pumps'

She said: "As a minister in the Treasury I've been involved in discussions for some time. The chancellor and the prime minister take those decisions.

"I'm not going to be able to give you a running commentary on exactly who said what and when."

Ms Smith said the freeze would be funded by underspends in government departments but would not say from which ones.

"It is not possible to give you a full breakdown at this point because the figure is evolving somewhat," she said.

Ms Smith's appearance has attracted a large amount of comment on Twitter, with Labour MP Ben Bradshaw and former deputy leader Lord Prescott among those criticising Mr Osborne's decision not to appear himself.

Conservative MP Louise Mensch said: "Anybody can have a tough time with Paxman... while the bubble (Westminster) has a go over one TV appearance... she is well respected, excellent in the chamber as a minister".

'Furious'

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph on Monday Transport Secretary Justine Greening seemed unaware of the forthcoming change.

She said she supported the rise as part of the government's deficit-reduction plan and would instead challenge petrol companies to cut the cost of fuel.

She said: "The taxes that we get in fund the public services that we all rely on. Surely it's better to challenge the petrol retailers to pass on reductions to motorists, and actually I think that's probably the most important thing to do.

"I absolutely think that the Treasury need to deliver on their deficit reduction plan. You see what's happening in countries across Europe [and] I think you realise why having a credible deficit-reduction plan has been so important for this country, and we're certainly not going to move away from that," she added.

Some Tory MPs were said to be furious that they had been told to defend the government's decision not to delay the fuel rise until a few hours before it was reversed.

One told the BBC: "It was absolutely bloody stupid, treating us like idiots."

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