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Rift in Britain's ruling Conservative Party deepens

The resignation of prominent minister Iain Duncan Smith on Friday has exposed internal divisions over the party's austerity policies and the referendum to stay in the European Union.

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    Britain's former Secretary for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, appears on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show in this photograph received via the BBC in London, Britain March 20, 2016.
    Jeff Overs/Reuters via BBC
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The rift within Britain's government deepened Sunday, as a prominent minister who resigned over plans to cut benefits for the disabled said the ruling party risks dividing the country if it doesn't spread the pain of economic austerity across all segments of society.

Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC that Prime Minister David Cameron's government has become too focused on cutting welfare for working age people as it seeks to balance the budget without looking for savings in other areas, such as state pensions. Mr. Duncan Smith, who resigned late Friday, said he decided to go after the latest benefit cuts were "juxtaposed" with tax breaks for the better off.

"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," he said. "Because otherwise it just looks like we see [welfare] as a pot of money — that it doesn't matter because they don't vote for us."

Duncan Smith's resignation as work and pensions secretary laid bare escalating tensions within the Conservatives before a June 23 referendum on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union. Duncan Smith, a former party leader nicknamed the "quiet man" of British politics, is a leading advocate of leaving the EU, while Cameron supports continued membership.

Britain's famously vigorous press swung into action Sunday, trying to explain Duncan Smith's departure and asking whether Treasury chief George Osborne had gone too far with his cost-cutting program. "Tory Party at War as IDS Allies Slam Immoral Cuts," wrote The Observer, using Duncan Smith's initials. "Knives Out For Osborne in Tory Backlash," said the Sunday Telegraph.

Pensions Minister Ros Altmann said she believes Duncan Smith resigned because of the EU referendum, not because of the government's welfare policies. By the time he resigned, it was clear that the government was going to reconsider the disability cuts, she said.

"He seems to want to do maximum damage to the party leadership in order to further his campaign to try to get Britain to leave the EU," Ms. Altmann said. "As far as I could tell, he appeared to spend much of the last few months plotting over Europe and against the leadership of the party, and it seemed to me he had been planning to find a reason to resign for a long time."

Duncan Smith vigorously denied such suggestions, saying he wants the "government to think again" about policies that will cut 33 billion pounds ($48 billion) a year from welfare spending by 2020.

"This is not some secondary attempt to attack the prime minister or about Europe," he said. "I've never, ever hidden my views about something and I'm not doing it now. I'm genuinely concerned."

The infighting is big problem for Mr. Cameron, but not a catastrophic one, said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds.

While the government is likely to spend the next few days putting out the fire, the prime minister is helped by the fact that he remains popular among Conservative voters and doesn't have to fight an election any time soon, she said.

"I think the Cameron government will live to fight another day," Honeyman said. "They will recover enough to keep themselves steady."

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