David Cameron faces a parliamentary confrontation on Monday after dissent over his government’s cuts to disability benefits burst into the open, triggered by the resignation of work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
The former Conservative leader dramatically quit on Friday, claiming he had been forced by George Osborne, the chancellor, to implement £4bn of cuts to disability benefits against his will.
His resignation left Downing Street battling to contain a civil war within the party, as angry ministers hit back against Mr Duncan Smith and signs of division multiplied.
Pensions minister Ros Altmann is facing a backlash after she made critical personal remarks about Mr Duncan Smith at the weekend. Several other ministers in the work and pensions department lined up to contradict her. One senior Tory backbencher dubbed her comments “crass” and “disgraceful”.
Mark Wallace, executive editor of the influential ConservativeHome website, called for Baroness Altmann to be sacked.
In a bid to take the heat out of the immediatecrisis, Mr Duncan Smith’s successor Stephen Crabb will announce in the Commons that the controversial cuts to personal independence payments have been scrapped. It is not yet clear how the chancellor will fill the £4bn hole their absence leaves behind.
On Monday morning, former Tory leader Michael Howard urged his party to “just calm down” and back the prime minister.
“Remember it is less than a year since the Conservative party won a general election under David Cameron’s leadership, and one of the main reasons for that was the economic recovery for which George Osborne as chancellor deserves an enormous amount of credit,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
Backbenchers needed to “listen to what the prime minister has to say this afternoon and remember our responsibility to the country,” Lord Howard said.
He also expressed support for George Osborne, saying the party had to keep its manifesto promises to deliver spending cuts, and should appreciate “just how difficult the job of chancellor is”.
“It is terribly important that as a country we live within our means.”
Lord Howard said he had “high regard” for Iain Duncan Smith but emphasised that Mr Osborne’s record “is an outstanding one”.
Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown echoed other Lib Dems’ views that they had kept the chancellor’s cuts in check when they were in government with the Tories under the coalition.
“Such fun to see how well the Tories are doing trying to govern without the Lib Dems,” he tweeted on Monday morning.
In another moment of potential parliamentary drama, Mr Cameron will seek to rally his party on Monday afternoon. The prime minister is scheduled to make a statement to the House of Commons about last week’s European summit, but is expected to use the opportunity to send a message to his backbenchers about party tensions.
MPs will debate Mr Osborne’s Budget measures on Monday afternoon. The event presents Mr Duncan Smith with his first opportunity to speak out as a backbencher, though his allies say he is not likely to do so straight away.
Although the backtrack on disability benefits has quelled some of the dissent, Mr Osborne faces hostility from Tory backbenchers on two other policies. Several Conservative MPs have added their names to Labour amendments to the finance bill which aim to scrap the tax on sanitary products, and block a rise in VAT on solar panels.
The Tory rebels are backing the amendments in what could turn into a sustained assault on a core piece of government legislation.
Eurosceptics blame the EU for both measures, and the question of Britain’s relationship with Europe is a key factor in the hostility between the Mr Osborne and Mr Duncan Smith. The chancellor has become known as the cabinet’s “remainer in chief”, while Mr Duncan Smith is perhaps the party’s most battle-hardened Eurosceptic.
Public recriminations from his own benches would exacerbate the chancellor’s difficulties. Mr Osborne faces growing questions about his political style, which critics say amounts to a patronage network.
Mr Duncan Smith said on Sunday that he resigned because he was “losing my influence” over policymaking and called for a return to a more “collegiate” way of working, in remarks clearly directed at Mr Cameron and his close political ally Mr Osborne.
Downing Street insisted on Sunday that it was focused on delivering the party’s manifesto commitments. “We will stick to our plan so we finish the job of delivering stability, security and opportunity for working people in our country,” a spokesperson said.
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