British PM seeks to calm party tensions over cuts, EU

21st March 2016, Comments 0 comments

British Prime Minister David Cameron will seek to calm tensions in his party Monday after a senior minister's resignation sparked an extraordinary bout of in-fighting, exposing deep splits ahead of the EU referendum.

Cameron was expected to use a statement to parliament about last week's European Union summit to try to diffuse the row sparked by Friday's resignation of welfare minister Iain Duncan Smith over plans to cut state payments for disabled people.

Critics of Duncan Smith, a former leader of the Conservative Party, accused him of stepping down to further his campaign for Britain to leave the EU in the referendum on June 23.

That position has put him at odds with the prime minister but has support from several ministers and many Conservative lawmakers.

Duncan Smith rejected any link to the EU debate, and in a highly damaging attack, accused the prime minister and finance minister George Osborne of trying to balance their books on the backs of the poorest people in Britain.

Ministers and lawmakers took to television to denounce each other over the weekend, sparking what commentators said was the party's worst crisis since the 1990s following the fall of prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Cameron will use his parliament appearance at 1530 GMT to defend his record, according to media reports, and will attempt to restore some order.

Michael Howard, who succeeded Duncan Smith as Conservative leader in 2003, called on the party to "calm down".

He warned that less than a year after winning the general election, the party had a responsibility to stay united for the good of the country, regardless of its divisions over Britain's place in the EU.

"We all therefore have to behave in a very responsible way," he told BBC radio.

- 'Maximum damage' -

The Conservative Party has long been divided over the EU and Cameron agreed to allow eurosceptic ministers to campaign openly against him ahead of the referendum, which opinion polls suggest will be close.

But the resignation of Duncan Smith, a leading eurosceptic, has threatened to turn the debate toxic.

Pensions Minister Ros Altmann, who served under Duncan Smith, said it seemed he was trying to do "maximum damage" to the party leadership in order to aid the Brexit campaign.

In response, three other ministers who worked closely with Duncan Smith issued statements supporting him.

Another ally, senior eurosceptic Bernard Jenkin, complained of high-handed leadership by Cameron, telling Sky News television that "the prime minister... is not meant to be a dictator".

- 'Most dangerous moment' -

Conservative commentator Paul Goodman, executive editor of the influential party website ConservativeHome, warned the row risked damaging the Tories' chances in local elections in May, as well as the party's long-term prospects.

Duncan Smith's resignation "marks the most dangerous moment for the party since the ousting of Margaret Thatcher the best part of 25 years ago", he wrote.

He urged Cameron to appoint eurosceptic justice minister Michael Gove as deputy prime minister to placate his critics.

Pressure is also growing on finance minister Osborne, who announced the £1.3 billion (1.2 billion euros, $1.4 billion) of disability cuts in his budget last week, at the same time as a tax cut for higher earners.

Cameron's office was forced to deny a report on Monday that he and Osborne -- a potential successor -- had fallen out over the planned welfare changes, which now look likely to be scrapped.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Osborne should be "considering his position".

But Cameron's spokeswoman told reporters that the finance minister still has the prime minister's full confidence.

© 2016 AFP

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