LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister David Cameron sought Monday to unite a warring Conservative Party behind his "modern, compassionate" government, after a senior minister resigned and accused the Treasury of targeting society's poorest people with welfare cuts.
The shock departure of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith — who said he could not stomach plans to slash payments to disabled people — blew the top off simmering Conservative divisions over government priorities, and the European Union.
Duncan Smith is among a group of senior Conservatives who want Britain to leave the EU, and his resignation heaped pressure on Cameron and Treasury chief George Osborne, both of whom want the U.K. to stay in. British voters will decide in a June 23 referendum whether to remain in the 28-nation bloc.
Duncan Smith, who has pushed through a series of unpopular changes to the country's welfare system over the past six years, dramatically quit late Friday, accusing the government of targeting the poor for cuts while protecting pensions for the better-off. He said last week's budget, which included a 4 billion-pound ($5.8 billion) cut to disability benefits, was the last straw.
"I am passionate about trying to improve the quality of life for those in difficult circumstances," said Duncan Smith, whose nickname during his unspectacular 2003-2005 term as leader of the Conservative Party was "the Quiet Man."
"Now, I want to do that and I want my party to do that. But I felt that I'm losing my ability to influence that."
On Monday, the government dropped its plan to cut the disability benefits. But Cameron defended Osborne's wider austerity measures, saying none of the government's reforms would have been possible without "turning the economy around."
Duncan Smith's resignation gave anti-EU lawmakers a chance to link unpopular austerity measures to the referendum. But Cameron batted away claims that cuts have been necessitated by the cost of EU membership.
"The 46 billion pounds (a year) we spend on disability benefits is many, many times more than anything we give to the European Union," Cameron said.
Nonetheless, Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said Duncan Smith's move would bolster the "out" campaign in the EU referendum.
"I think it reinforces the public view that David Cameron and George Osborne appear to be disconnected from public opinion," he said.
He said it gave the impression that the government did not care about the working poor, "because they don't vote for us."
The row is a particular blow to Osborne, who has been Treasury chief since 2010 and aspires to succeed Cameron as Conservative leader.
Osborne's primary economic policy has been to reduce Britain's deficit through a cocktail of spending cuts and tax increases. The government argues that its austerity medicine has been shared fairly across all income brackets — its mantra has been "we're all in this together."
But Duncan Smith said pensions, which account for more than half of total welfare payments, have been untouched while billions have been cut from benefits paid to working-age people and the most vulnerable.
Cameron said his government is working to "improve the life chances of the poorest in our country" by creating jobs, battling discrimination and introducing a higher minimum wage, and praised Duncan Smith for contributing an "enormous amount" while in government.
The Conservative feuding drew comparisons to the party's fractious period under Prime Minister John Major, which ended when they were ousted by Tony Blair's Labour Party in 1997. The Conservatives remained out of office until 2010.
But the Labour Party is weakened, with a left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is mistrusted by many of his own lawmakers.
Steven Fielding, director of the Center for British Politics at the University of Nottingham, said that for the Conservatives "it's a terrible crisis — but they're not facing Tony Blair. They're not facing a united Labour Party."
The row at the top of the government weighed on the British pound. In late-afternoon trading in London, it was down 0.6 percent at $1.4383.
Kit Juckes, foreign exchange strategist at Societe Generale, said that for the currency, "politics is going to be more important than economics for the next three months."
Associated Press writer Pan Pylas contributed. Follow Jill Lawless at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless