LONDON • British Prime Minister David Cameron backed his embattled finance minister, Mr George Osborne, yesterday, in a bid to stem infighting triggered by the resignation of a senior minister.
Mr Cameron's Conservative Party, already divided over a forthcoming referendum on membership in the European Union, descended into chaos over the weekend after Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith resigned with a fierce critique of Mr Osborne and his plans to cut welfare.
Mr Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced the £1.3 billion (S$2.53 billion) of disability cuts in last Wednesday's Budget, at the same time as a tax cut for higher earners, which proved the final straw.
Branding the latest welfare cuts "deeply unfair", Mr Duncan Smith said they could not be justified at a time when the government was lowering taxes for people on relatively high incomes. Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, who both want Britain to stay in the EU, said that Mr Duncan Smith - a leading campaigner for Britain to leave the EU - is seeking to damage the government.
The pointed criticism of Mr Osborne, whom Mr Cameron has trusted to run the British economy since 2010, posed a threat to party unity ahead of the June 23 EU vote and brought calls from the opposition Labour Party for Mr Osborne to resign.
Faced with the difficult task of calming tensions in a party with a long history of bitter internal rows, Mr Cameron said Mr Osborne's work on "turning our economy around" was essential to delivering his party's vision for the country.
You can't show your compassion unless you have a strong economy generating the revenues that our health service needs, that our schools need, and indeed that our welfare systems need.
PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON, defending Mr Osborne's proposals.
"You can't show your compassion unless you have a strong economy generating the revenues that our health service needs, that our schools need, and indeed that our welfare systems need," Mr Cameron told Parliament.
"This government will continue to give the highest priority to improving the life chances of the poorest in our country," he said, adding that he was driven by a "deeply held conviction that everyone in Britain should have the chance to make the most of their lives".
Mr Duncan Smith's dramatic exit, in which he said welfare cuts risked driving a wedge between the rich and the poor, was immediately seen by commentators as intended to destabilise the Prime Minister as the Europe debate intensifies.
But Mr Cameron also praised the outgoing welfare minister, in an effort to calm the row which threatened to become a proxy for the internal party debate between eurosceptics and pro-Europeans.
"(He) contributed an enormous amount to the work of this government and he can be proud of what he achieved," Mr Cameron said of Mr Duncan Smith.
Earlier, Labour seized upon the divisions by trying to call Mr Osborne before Parliament to answer questions on the welfare cuts. Mr Osborne instead sent a junior minister to field the queries, provoking criticism and ridicule.
The government has announced it is abandoning the contentious spending cuts to the welfare budget worth £4.4 billion.
REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE