British PM seeks to mend party rift over cuts, EU

Update: March, 22/2016 - 12:00

LONDON — 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.

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 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.

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 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, Cameron sought to reassert his authority, hitting back at Duncan Smith’s accusations.

"This government will continue to give the highest priority to improving the life chances of the poorest in our country," 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 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.

Defence of ally

Cameron also issued a clear public defence of finance minister Osborne, a potential successor, whose standing was rocked by 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," Cameron said.

Osborne announced the £1.3 billion ($1.4 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 Duncan Smith.

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

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

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 Osborne to resign.

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", Corbyn said. — AFP