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What does Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation mean for the Conservatives?

Image credit: New Statesman
Image credit: New Statesman
Image credit: New Statesman

Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the cabinet comes at a terrible time for the governing party. Already divided over Britain’s membership of the European Union, Duncan Smith’s departure in response to his government’s Budget will worsen the crisis that brews within the Conservatives.

By the end of February, one hundred and fifty-five Conservative MPs, including seven of the thirty members of David Cameron’s cabinet, wished for Great Britain to leave the European Union. The Prime Minister’s decision to permit members of his own cabinet and party to campaign on either side of the debate has aided the internal division of his party, enabling his MPs to take a public stance against his renegotiation in Europe. Various participants of both sides of the EU debate have appeared on radio and television to criticise each other’s position.

On the 16th of March, George Osborne delivered the report of his latest Budget in the House of Commons. Predictions of growth were down in response to global economic problems, but the Budget promised a financial surplus by the end of the current government. The plan included investment in the railways, tax relief for museums and a cut to corporation tax. The highlight however, were the cuts to benefits received by the disabled.

The Chancellor’s team argued that the cuts to Personal Independence Payment (PIP) would save the Treasury £4.4 billion, but others, including the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said that it would be at a tremendous cost to disabled claimants.

For Iain Duncan Smith, the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Budget was considered as an unfair document. The government, he has said, is going too far in its quest to reduce the national economic deficit. On the 18th, he announced his resignation from the Cabinet, citing the Budget, not the European Referendum, as the motivation for his departure. The cuts to PIP were a step too far away from the Prime Minister’s promise to unite the country, governing under one-nation conservatism.

Writing in his letter of resignation to the Prime Minister, the former Secretary informed his superior that he was uncomfortable with how much the government’s focus on deficit reduction would impede his own department’s strategy:

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. While they are defensible in narrow terms, given the continuing deficit, they are not defensible in the way they were placed within a Budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers. They should have instead been part of a wider process to engage others in finding the best way to better focus resources on those most in need.

I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.

Too often my team and I have been pressured in the immediate run up to a budget or fiscal event to deliver yet more reductions to the working age benefit bill. There has been too much emphasis on money saving exercises and not enough awareness from the Treasury, in particular, that the government’s vision of a new welfare-to-work system could not be repeatedly salami-sliced.

Iain Duncan Smith is a renowned figure of the Conservative Party. He led the party from 2001 to 2003, receiving Margaret Thatcher’s endorsement when competing to take the top spot, but resigned after a vote of no confidence was submitted against him. He was, until a few days ago, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions since 2010, enacting a series of reforms to state welfare that have polarised public opinion. Supporters believe he is a principled social conservative, on a mission to end the country’s “something-for-nothing culture” and reign in an out-of-control welfare state; critics of the Conservatives see Duncan Smith as one of its worst figures.

Some doubt Duncan Smith’s resignation: James O’Brien, the commentator for LBC, does not believe that Duncan Smith has acted “out of concern for the poor and vulnerable.” But, regardless of whether you like Iain Duncan Smith or his policies, his resignation in response to George Osborne’s Budget has caused further chaos within his party, the second act of grand rebellion in a matter of weeks.

Duncan Smith has accused the Prime Minister and Chancellor of having more concern for their careers and their party’s position in office than for the general welfare of the country and its population.

Today, Stephen Crabb, MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire and the former Welsh Secretary, began his time as the new Work and Pensions Secretary with the announcement that the cuts to PIP have been cancelled. The government has accepted two amendments to the bill from the Opposition and removed its PIP cuts. “This is no way to deliver a Budget and no way to manage an economy,” concluded George Osborne’s opposite number, John McDonnell, in the Commons today.

After a weekend of debate and dissent following Duncan Smith’s resignation, the Conservative Party has reached the zenith of what the Telegraph calls “its deepest crisis for two decades.” Some, including Jeremy Corbyn MP, Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, have called for the Chancellor to resign too. Following the turnaround on tax credit cuts, this is the second major government U-turn on a prominent Budget policy; it may prove difficult for the Conservative Party to claim to be the party of economic security if high-ranking party members’ rebellions cause drastic changes to plans at short notice.