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Clash of the titans: Academic feud hits CNBC

There's an adage that academic politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. But perhaps there's more to fight over when you are debating the secret behind the U.K.'s economic recovery.

Economist Jonathan Portes and renowned historian-turned-economic commentator, Niall Ferguson, certainly think so.

On Thursday, Portes, the director of the U.K.'s National Institute of Economic and Social Research, took to CNBC to defend himself in an increasingly bitter war-of-words over whether the U.K. economy is recovering because of austerity measures introduced by the Conservative government, or despite them.

The battle ignited when Portes made an official complaint about mistakes he alleged Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard, had made in an article published in the Financial Times newspaper last month. In the piece Ferguson said left-leaning economists who had argued in favor of increased government spending rather than austerity following the crisis had been proven wrong.

A Twitter spat between Portes @jdportes and Ferguson @nfergus ensued, and on Thursday, an article by Ferguson appeared on the website of the right-leaning Spectator magazine in which Ferguson likened Portes to the "charmless, pompous and mediocre" Kenneth Widmerpool, a character in Anthony Powell's" Dance to the Music of Time" cycle of novels.


In response, Portes told CNBC on Thursday: "Professor Ferguson was wrong and he hasn't really got over that."

"All I have really done in this is to make some fairly basic factual points that the article he wrote in the FT contained a couple of fairly basic factual errors. I have not tried to be personal or rude about this. I am a bit surprised by his article today but you can't take that sort of thing too seriously," Portes added.

Ferguson's criticisms of Portes in the Spectator article include his lack of a doctorate degree, although Portes does hold an undergraduate degree in Mathematics from the University of Oxford and a Master's in public policy from Princeton University.

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Ferguson himself does hold a PhD—in economic history. But interestingly, neither of the two has an academic qualification in economics.

Portes has remained defiant, both about the lack of letters in front of his name and about the mistakes he insists Ferguson made in the FT (a lengthy clarification of the article has since been published, following the intervention of the editor of the newspaper, Lionel Barber.)

The jury is out as to which camp is right about the impact of Conservative policies on the U.K. economy since the party's election in 2010.

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U.K. gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 2.8 percent last year in 2014, compared with 1.6 percent in Germany and 0.4 percent in France. However, U.K. growth is seen slowing slightly this year to 2.6 percent, according to the European Commission.