After George Osborne's surprise decision to scrap the rise in fuel duty, it was left to junior Treasury minister Chloe Smith to explain the government's behaviour on last night's Newsnight, with excruciating results (watch from 6:19 minutes). As Paxman repeatedly asked when she was told of the decision (one was reminded of his famous duel with Michael Howard), Smith could only reply that she wouldn't give a "running commentary" on government policy-making and that it had been "under discussion" for some weeks. Her humiliation continued as she was asked to reconcile the move with her statement last month that "it is not certain that cutting fuel duty would have a positive effect on families or businesses". Smith simply replied: "It's important to do what you can to help households and businesses".
One was left with the impression of a junior minister hopelessly trying to account for the government's chaotic decison-making. As Paul Waugh revealed on his blog, as late as 12:30pm Tory backbenchers were being told to take the line that Labour's call for a freeze in fuel duty was "hypocrisy of the worst kind". He notes: "The Quad did indeed discuss it a month ago, but we still don't know exactly when the final decision was made. Surely not after Cabinet and after the 12.30 Line to Take?" If so, it would explain Smith's supreme discomfort last night.
In Westminster, Osborne is known as "the submarine" for his habit of surfacing only for set-piece events such as the Budget and retreating under water at the first sign of trouble (one is reminded of Gordon Brown, who was nicknamed "Macavity" after the cat "who wasn't there"). And so it proved yesterday. Had he more respect for his Treasury colleagues, he would surely have appeared himself and spared Smith her humiliation. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old minister, who is envied by older Conservative MPs looked over for promotion, she will find few sympathisers on the Tory backbenches.