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British PM seeks to mend party rift over cuts, EU

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British Prime Minister David Cameron issued an impassioned defence of his government Monday as he battled to quell bitter Conservative Party party infighting triggered by a pro-Brexit senior minister's explosive resignation.

[London] British Prime Minister David Cameron issued an impassioned defence of his government Monday as he battled to quell bitter Conservative Party party infighting triggered by a pro-Brexit senior minister's explosive resignation.

Mr Cameron heaped praise on Iain Duncan Smith, who quit as welfare minister on Friday over plans to slash state welfare payments for disabled people, saying they undermined the entire purpose of the administration and damaged national unity.

Mr Cameron confirmed in parliament that he was ditching the controversial planned cuts announced by his closest ally, finance minister George Osborne, in Wednesday's annual budget.

Critics of Mr Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader and prominent supporter of Britain leaving the European Union, accused him of walking out to boost the Brexit campaign before the June 23 referendum.

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Mr Duncan Smith rejected any link to the upcoming vote on EU membership, which has exposed deep splits among the Conservatives.

In a highly damaging attack, he accused Mr Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer Osborne of an indefensible attempt to balance the books on the backs of the most vulnerable people in Britain.

The statement unleashed a wave of open criticism of the leadership from within the party.

Reeling from what commentators said was the most dangerous crisis for the centre-right party in years, Mr Cameron sought to reassert his authority, hitting back at Mr Duncan Smith's accusations.

"This government will continue to give the highest priority to improving the life chances of the poorest in our country," Mr Cameron said in a statement in parliament.

He said he was driven by a "deeply-held conviction that everyone in Britain should have the chance to make the most of their lives".

"Securing our economy, extending opportunity: we will continue with this approach, in full, because we are a modern, compassionate one-nation Conservative government," he concluded.

Trying to heal the wounds, he said Mr Duncan Smith had contributed "an enormous amount to the work of this government and he can be proud of what he achieved" in six years as work and pensions secretary.

Mr Cameron also issued a clear public defence of finance minister Mr Osborne, a potential successor, whose standing was rocked by Mr Duncan Smith's scathing resignation letter.

"None of this would be possible if it wasn't for the actions of this government and the work of the chancellor in turning our economy around," Mr Cameron said.

Mr Osborne announced the £1.3 billion (S$1.9 billion) of disability cuts in Wednesday's budget, at the same time as a tax cut for higher earners, which proved the final straw for Mr Duncan Smith.

But Mr Cameron announced the cuts to disability benefits would be ditched.

"We are not going ahead with the changes that were put forward," he said.

Mr Osborne was not in parliament and it was left to one of his junior ministers at the Treasury to defend the budget.

Main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called on Mr Osborne to resign.

Mr Osborne should "either come here and explain how he is going to fill that hole" created in the public finances by ditching the welfare cuts, or "consider his position and look for something else to do", Mr Corbyn said.

The Conservative Party has long been divided over the European Union, and Mr Cameron agreed to allow eurosceptic ministers like Mr Duncan Smith to campaign openly against his 'Remain' stance ahead of the referendum, which opinion polls suggest will be close.

But the resignation of Mr Duncan Smith threatened to turn the debate toxic, as well as stirring up unrest within the party.

Conservative commentator Paul Goodman, executive editor of the influential party website ConservativeHome, warned the row risked damaging the Tories' long-term prospects and called it "the most dangerous moment for the party" in 25 years.

In an analysis in the Guardian, associate editor Martin Kettle wrote that Mr Cameron had succeeded in restoring order in the party - at least for now.

"How far that discipline can go on holding as the EU referendum nears is another question," Mr Kettle wrote.

"Brexit is not an academic argument for its advocates. It is the opportunity of a political lifetime."

AFP

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