Nick Clegg has hit out at a respected economic think tank after it dismissed the coalition's claims that the pain of public spending cuts had been spread fairly.
The Deputy Prime Minister said the Government "fundamentally" disagreed with the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and described its measure of fairness as "a complete nonsense".
The IFS insisted £81 billion of cuts unveiled by Chancellor George Osborne would hit the poorest harder than most of the better off. Its intervention undermined the Government's efforts to present the spending review as fair, a test that ministers have been at pains to stress that the plans meet.
In an interview with The Guardian, Mr Clegg said the IFS had "airbrushed" out many of the aspects of state provision upon which poorer people depend. "We just fundamentally disagree with the IFS," he said. "It goes back to a culture of how you measure fairness that took root under Gordon Brown's time, where fairness was seen through one prism and one prism only which was the tax and benefits system.
"It is a complete nonsense to apply that measure, which is a slightly desiccated Treasury measure. People do not live only on the basis of the benefits they receive. They also depend on public services, such as childcare and social care. All of those things have been airbrushed out of the picture by the IFS." He insisted that "the richest are paying the most", adding: "Those who say otherwise are not being very straight with people and frankly they are frightening people."
Mr Osborne's cuts package was backed by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which described them as "tough, necessary and courageous".
Media baron Rupert Murdoch also backed the Government's tough line on the public finances, urging the coalition to "stay the political course". The chairman and chief executive of News Corporation said the coalition - like Margaret Thatcher - "must not be for turning".
But a YouGov poll for The Sun revealed uncertainty among the public about whether the cuts would be good or bad for the economy. While a majority of voters felt the cuts were unavoidable, 41% thought they would be good for the economy while another 41% said they would be bad.
Meanwhile, the TUC has echoed the IFS, saying the poorest 10% of households will be hit 15 times harder than the richest 10%.
The TUC said a study of how different groups benefit from public services revealed that people with annual pay below £10,200, will suffer reductions in spending on services equivalent to 29.5% of their income. In contrast, the richest 10% will lose services worth just 2% of their net income, the equivalent of £1,506 a year, said the union organisation.