Whatever the British people decide in their referendum on leaving the European Union on June 23, one thing is clear: the cohesion of its government is shot.
The ruling Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron is on the verge of civil war after the resignation over the weekend of Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of the government’s welfare reforms and a former Tory leader.
In his resignation letter, Duncan Smith attributed his decision to cuts in disability benefits that Treasury chief George Osborne had announced in his budget for the 2015-6 fiscal year last week. The cuts, he said “are a compromise too far,” and “not defensible in the way that they were placed within a budget that benefits higher-earning taxpayers.”
Within Duncan Smith’s limpid language there’s an explosive subtext: it struck at the heart of Cameron’s promise, when he first took power in 2010, to spread the pain of deficit cutting fairly across the population. One of the most senior figures in the British government has thrown his weight behind a liberal consensus that the Tory Party is an unreconstructed, uncaring, and divisive bunch whose only interest is in making the rich richer—a narrative that Cameron spent years trying to dismantle to make his party electable again.
That would be political dynamite in its own right. However, Duncan Smith is not just any disaffected minister. He’s one of the most senior Tories in favor of Britain’s exit of the European Union, or Brexit. His rebellion gives encouragement and leadership to the many lawmakers (and even more grassroots party members) who have dismissed Cameron’s much-vaunted E.U. reform deal as an irrelevance.
Duncan Smith strenuously denied to anyone who would listen that his decision to step down wasn’t about the referendum. In fairness, his concerns about Treasury cutting the welfare bill too aggressively were already common knowledge in Westminster. But the point is, until now, he had been loyal enough not to go public with those misgivings.
Tellingly, the reaction of Conservative MPs so far has divided not along the lines of deficit hawks versus Compassionate Conservatives, but instead along the lines of those who want the U.K. to stay in the E.U. versus those who don’t, with all his support coming from pro-Brexit MPs such as Priti Patel, and all the criticism coming from those, such as junior minister Ros Altmann, still hitching their star to the Cameron-Osborne wagon.
Cameron and Osborne, lest we forget, are campaigning for Britain to stay in the E.U., along with most of the U.K.’s big business and almost all of its mainstream political elite (the Confederation of British Industry helpfully chimed in over the weekend with a warning that a Brexit would put 1 million U.K. jobs at risk).
Duncan Smith’s move makes it more likely than ever that the referendum, whichever way it goes, will fatally weaken Cameron’s position. Either he will lose the referendum (and his authority as head of the government), or he will win a Pyrrhic victory that will spark more defections to the anti-E.U. U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). Over 140 of the 330 sitting Tory MPs are in favor of leaving the E.U., according to the Westminster Blog Order-Order.com.
The party has a wafer-thin effective majority of 12 in the House of Commons.