The civil war engulfing the Conservatives has intensified after Iain Duncan Smith launched an attack on the government’s austerity programme for balancing the books on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.
In his first interview since dramatically resigning from the cabinet on Friday night, the former Tory party leader revealed the scale of his unhappiness with the way David Cameron and George Osborne run Downing Street, saying their “arbitrary” attempts to cut welfare risk dividing society.
Although he presided over deep cuts to benefits for the last six years, Duncan Smith said the scale of reductions in welfare for working people had “gone too far” to the extent that they were harming both the Conservatives and the country.
He described the chancellor’s budget last week as “deeply unfair” and argued Osborne was trying to reduce the deficit in the wrong way.
His comments were a significant break with the Tory consensus that welfare cuts are necessary to balance the books, and dealt a damaging blow to Osborne’s hopes of persuading the party to make him their next leader.
“They are losing sight of the direction of travel they should be in,” Duncan Smith told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, adding: “It is in danger of drifting in a direction that divides society rather than unites it.”
In the immediate fallout of the explosive interview, ministers loyal to Downing Street lined up to cast doubt on Duncan Smith’s motives, while his allies rallied round to protect him and criticise Osborne.
Downing Street was quick to paint Duncan Smith’s resignation as connected to his views on the European Union, because he is one of the leading campaigners for Britain to leave. Amber Rudd, the energy secretary, said she resented her colleague’s “high moral tone”, while Ros Altmann, a pensions minister in his own former department, branded him difficult to work with and claimed it was “all about Europe”.
Stephen McPartland, a leading Tory tax credit rebel, was also extremely critical of Duncan Smith, telling LBC that the sanctification of the former party leader was “disgusting” and he had “never seen evidence of this conscience people are talking about” during meetings about welfare in the past.
But other ministers and Tory MPs rushed to praise the moral purpose behind his resignation and added their reservations about Osborne’s budget and wider political strategy.
Many of these were pro-Brexit, but there were notable exceptions, including Heidi Allen, a Tory MP and leading tax credit rebel, who became the first to publicly cast doubt on whether Osborne should continue in his job.
She said the government had made “some poor decisions” in budgets, such as attempted cuts to tax credits, universal credit, employment and support allowance and personal independence payment, while making the “wrong” choice to give away tax cuts instead.
“I am hoping Stephen Crabb, the new secretary of state, will have a very strong conversation with the Treasury and all of this will be brought back to the table again ... We have got to start again,” Allen said.
Asked whether Osborne was still the right chancellor, Allen told the BBC’s Sunday Politics that the jury was still out. “It depends how he responds to the challenge. I’m hoping so but we will see in the weeks and months ahead,” she said.
Pressed on whether Osborne could still be prime minister, Allen said: “Sometimes the strength of a man is how he picks himself up from a fall. Let’s see how he responds. If this is attempted to be brushed under the carpet in any way, I would say absolutely not, his chances ares over. But if he lifts himself up and shows he is listening ... Making mistakes is OK provided you correct them before they affect people.”
Bernard Jenkin, a leading leave campaigner and Tory MP on the 1922 committee, also launched a critique of Downing Street’s leadership style.
“Everything is dictated from the top for short-term political advantage, everything is tactical – this cannot go on. The point Iain Duncan Smith made today about cabinet government … We need to reset how Whitehall operates,” he told Sky News.
“You have government departments with secretaries of states running them because they should have responsibility and the chancellor and the prime minister are just part of a team.
“The prime minister is meant to be primus inter pares, he is not meant to be a dictator. The Treasury is not meant to control everything that goes on in government departments.”
Others to rally round Duncan Smith include Justin Tomlinson, the disabilities minister, who said: “Iain always conducted himself in a professional, dedicated and determined manner. He actively encouraged ministers and teams to engage, challenge and develop ideas. We were to be ourselves, our judgment backed as we worked as a team both for DWP and the government.”
Priti Patel, the employment minister, also said she “fundamentally believed this is not about Europe” and claimed all meetings in the DWP’s ministerial team had been constructive.
She said Duncan Smith had spoken “very passionately and with great dignity” but also attempted a defence of the budget and insisted the Conservatives were still “modern and compassionate”.
Duncan Smith resigned on Friday, citing the cuts to disability benefits announced in George Osborne’s budget as “a compromise too far” in his resignation letter.
On Sunday, he went further in his criticisms of the Treasury and No 10, saying longstanding disputes over welfare had led him to feel “isolated” and “semi-detached”. He cited the post-election attempts to cuts to tax credits, disability benefits and the new universal credit system in order to stay inside the “arbitrary” welfare cap had made him increasingly depressed to the extent he had considered resigning last year.
He said the scale and impact of the cuts to disability benefits, combined with tax breaks for higher earners, had only become clear to him on Wednesday morning, just before the budget.
“Juxtaposed as it came through in the budget, that is deeply unfair and was perceived to be unfair,” he said. “And that unfairness is damaging to the government, it’s damaging to the party and it’s actually damaging to the public.”
Duncan Smith added: “There needs to be a greater, collegiate sense on how decisions are made. This is not the way to do government.”
He also attacked Osborne’s entire deficit reduction strategy that has been to a large degree based on cutting benefits for working-age people while protecting those for pensioners, who are more likely to vote.
“The truth is, yes, we need to get the deficit down but we need to make sure we widen the scope of where we look to get that deficit down and not just narrow it down on working age benefits,” he said. “Because otherwise it just looks like we see this as a pot of money, that it doesn’t matter because they don’t vote for us.”
Asked whether it was part of an attempted coup on the current incumbents of Downing Street that could pave the way for a new leader, he said: “This is not personal ... I have no personal ambitions. If I never go back into government again, I will not cry about that. I came into this government because I cared about welfare reform.”
Duncan Smith insisted he wanted the chancellor and prime minister to succeed, but added: “I am concerned that this government that I want to succeed is not actually able to do the kind of things that it should because it has become too focused on narrowly getting the deficit down, without being able to say where that should fall other than simply on those who I think progressively can less afford to have that fall on them.”
He did not deny reports in the Sunday papers that Cameron had called him a “shit” in an explosive telephone call on Friday night after the resignation.
“I am resigning because I want my government to think again about this and get back to that position that I believe, which is about being a one-nation [party],” he said.
“This is not some secondary attempt to attack the prime minister or about Europe. It is nothing to do with that at all – if I wanted to do that I would have been clear. I have never, ever hidden my views about something and I’m not doing it now. I am genuinely, genuinely concerned.”
Following his interviews, Downing Street directly rebuffed Duncan Smith’s claim that Cameron cannot claim to be running a One Nation government. It also stressed that the prime minister would continue with his manifesto commitments to control welfare spending and balance the books.
“We are sorry to see Iain Duncan Smith go, but we are a One Nation government determined to continue helping everyone in our society have more security and opportunity, including the most disadvantaged,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said.
“That means we will deliver our Manifesto commitments to make the welfare system fairer, cut taxes and ensure we have a stable economy by controlling welfare spending and living within our means.
“Under this government there are over two million more people with the security of a job and a pay packet, almost half a million fewer children growing up in a home where nobody works and over a million fewer people trapped on out-of-work benefits.
“But there is more to do. That’s why we will stick to our plan so we finish the job of delivering stability, security and opportunity for working people in our country.”
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Anushka Asthana, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th March 2016 13.03 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010