LONDON — Smouldering tensions within Britain’s ruling Conservative Party have exploded as a prominent minister resigned over the government’s plans to cut benefits for the disabled while giving tax breaks for the better off.
Iain Duncan Smith quit late Friday, two days after the cuts were unveiled in a sixth consecutive austerity budget — a plan that has drawn criticism from many members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s own party. The work and pensions secretary said he could no longer support policies that he believes are driven more by political ideology than economic necessity.
“I have for some time and rather reluctantly come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled and the context in which they’ve been made are a compromise too far,” Duncan Smith wrote in his resignation letter.
His decision laid bare escalating tensions within the Conservative Party as Britain prepares for a June 23 referendum on whether to leave the European Union. Duncan Smith, a former party leader nicknamed the “quiet man,” is a prominent advocate of leaving the EU, while Cameron supports continued membership.
While Cameron has allowed ministers to follow their own beliefs on the EU issue, he has found it a formidable task to hold his government together as the debate heats up. The Sun newspaper captured the internal warfare with a headline that alluded to the ancient rebellion against Julius Caesar and — punning on Duncan Smith’s initials — warned Cameron to beware the “IDS of March.”
The resignation followed days of uproar over plans to trim personal independence payments for the disabled — a proposal met with such fury that the government had been promising to rethink it.
In his resignation letter, Duncan Smith said the cuts were “not defensible” in a budget that gave benefits to wealthier taxpayers, and he argued for broader reforms that would “focus resources on those most in need.” He has long argued that benefits such fuel subsidies for the elderly should be means tested so they only go to those in need.
Cameron nevertheless argued that Duncan Smith had accepted the changes only days ago.
“In light of this, I am puzzled and disappointed that you have chosen to resign,” he wrote in reply to Duncan Smith’s letter of resignation.