George Osborne refused to apologise for attempting to make £4.4bn of benefit cuts for people with disabilities as he defended his controversial budget that sparked the resignation of the work and pensions secretary.
In his first House of Commons appearance since the fiasco, the chancellor acknowledged the disability cuts had been a mistake and would be withdrawn.
However, Osborne struck a combative tone as he defended the core principles of his tax-cutting budget and overall economic strategy, which Iain Duncan Smith attacked as “deeply unfair” after resigning from the cabinet.
The chancellor had been criticised for going to ground since the disability cuts were ditched and Duncan Smith stepped down on Friday night.
Conservative colleagues also said Osborne’s chances of succeeding David Cameron as party leader had been severely damaged by the unravelling of the budget, which now has a £4.4bn black hole in its figures.
John McDonnell, the Labour leader, said: “The behaviour of the chancellor over the last 11 days calls into question his fitness for office he now holds.”
The budget was the result of the “grubby, incompetent machinations of a political chancellor”, he added.
But Osborne was in no mood to apologise despite being pressed several times by Labour and SNP MPs.
On the first occasion, he replied: “I have made it clear that where we’ve made a mistake, where we’ve got things wrong, we listen and we learn. That’s precisely what we’ve done.”
Asked again, he said: “I have already said we are not going ahead with these changes. And I have addressed these issues.”
Pressed for a third time, Osborne: “I couldn’t have been clearer. We listened, we learned, we made a mistake, we withdrew the proposals.”
He then turned on the opposition with a request for an apology from Labour for its economic record in government and the SNP for pushing for independence.
Osborne, who is the first chancellor to open the budget debate in decades, started by praising Duncan Smith for his welfare reforms, emphasising that they had worked side-by-side on policies that the former work and pensions secretary criticised during his resignation.
He addressed the specific attacks of Duncan Smith by echoing Cameron, saying strong economic credentials were essential for a “strong and compassionate society for the next generation”.
Challenged about how he would find £4.4bn of savings to replace the personal independence payment cuts, Osborne revealed that he was already on course to meet the Conservative manifesto pledge of £12bn in welfare cuts so further savings from the benefits bill would not be needed.
The chancellor also echoed the position of Stephen Crabb, the new work and pensions secretary, who said on Monday the government would not make further cuts to the welfare bill and ruled out calls from Tory colleagues to make savings from pensioner benefits instead.
“Let me just say this about benefits to pensioners because it’s been raised – in the same breath, some people say to me we’re not saving enough from pensioners but at the same time complaining about everything from long-term increases in the state pension age to keep pace with rising life expectancy, to restrictions on the lifetime allowances for the largest pension pots,” he said.
“The truth is that we have made substantial savings from pensioner welfare – half a trillion pounds of savings.
“They are vital to the long-term sustainability of our public finances but we’ve made these savings in a way that enables us to go on giving people who have worked hard all their lives a decent, generous basic state pension that we committed to in our manifesto, and I am not going to take that away from people.”
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