An appearance on BBC2's Newsnight by Chloe Smith, the economic secretary to the Treasury, was widely judged to have been disaster, leading to accusations on social media of cowardice being levelled at the chancellor for not taking a greater public role in defending the government's latest budget policy reversal.
John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, tweeted: "When we faced hard times every Cabinet minister would go on TV to defend policy. Osborne sent a very junior minister. Coward."
Smith told presenter Jeremy Paxman that the freeze, which will cost £550m and reverses an increase planned for August, would be funded by underspends in government departments, but she refused to say which ones.
"It is not possible to give you a full breakdown at this point because the figure is evolving somewhat," she said.
When she said the number one priority of the coalition was reducing the deficit, Paxman said: "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 in funding a tax cut, or failure to implement a tax rise which was scheduled?"
She replied: "The plan overall has not changed. The plan, overall, remains those departmental budgets as they were laid out. We are looking to use the underspends, however, in a way that is really valued by households and businesses, and I think anyone listening tonight who drives a car does know that."
Earlier, Downing Street had defended the decision not to inform other ministers of the U-turn until Tuesday's cabinet meeting.
Smith was asked if she ever woke up in the morning and thought: "My God, what am I going to be told today?" She replied: "I wake up in the morning and know, actually, that some of my constituents will really value not having to pay that little bit more on fuel prices come August because the cost of living is pretty tight at the moment and everybody does know that."
Paxman's final question to her was: "Do you ever think you are incompetent?" Smith replied: "I think it is valuable to help real people in this way and I do think that is valued by people who drive."
Tory commentators were among whose judging the appearance to have been damaging. Phillip Blond, the Conservative political thinker, tweeted afterwards: "I am glad that was over it was rather painful - I rather like Chloe Smith - her first time - its not that easy".
Labour MP Huw Irranca-Davies also joined in the criticism on Twitter: "Can it be true that Chloe Smith was sacrificed on Newsnight because Osborne was wineing and dining Tory MPs in No 11? If true, despicable."
Smith was also put up earlier in the day to defend the U-turn on Channel 4 News and she came under pressure to identify the departments from where the underspends would be found.
"There will be a number of those and we will to come back at autumn statement with the full details," she said. "The work is of course progressing to make sure that its is possible to give you a full range at autumn statement.
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