Alan Milburn, a former Labour Cabinet minister and close ally of Tony Blair, has resigned as chairman of the Social Mobility Commission, along with his Tory deputy, former Cabinet minister Baroness Shephard.
In his resignation letter, Mr Milburn claims dealing with Brexit means the Government “does not seem to have the necessary bandwidth to ensure the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with the reality”.
He adds: “I have little hope of the current Government making the progress I believe is necessary to bring about a fairer Britain.
“It seems unable to commit to the future of the commission as an independent body or to give due priority to the social mobility challenge facing our nation.”
A friend of Baroness Shephard, a former Tory education secretary and ally of Sir John Major, tells The Sunday Times: “Gillian is livid about the way the commission has been treated.”
The resignations come with the Prime Minister already under enormous political pressure, as she faces crunch Brexit talks in the coming days and questions over the future of her most senior minister, Damian Green.
In his attack on the PM, Mr Milburn says: “The worst position in politics is to set out a proposition that you’re going to heal social divisions and then do nothing about it. It’s almost better never to say that you’ll do anything about it.
“It’s disappointing at least that the Government hasn’t got its shoulder to the wheel in the way it should to deal with these structural issues that lead to social division and political alienation in the country.
“In America for 30 years real average earnings have remained flat. Now here the Chancellor is predicting that will last for 20 years. That has a consequence for people, but a political consequence as well. It means more anger, more resentment and creates a breeding ground for populism.”
Mr Milburn also accuses Government ministers of abandoning voters who backed Brexit and doing nothing to remove the grievances that led to the referendum vote.
The commission’s annual report, published on Tuesday, found that Britain has 65 “cold spot” areas where social mobility is constrained, of which 60 voted to leave the EU.
At the current rate, it would take 15 years to narrow the ability gap between rich and poor at the age of five, 20 years for wages to return to the same level in real terms as they were before the crash, 80 years to close the gap in higher education participation rates.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Mr Milburn declares: “There has been indecision, dysfunctionality and a lack of leadership.”
And he compares the commission’s attempts to tackle the problem in the face of Government inaction to “pushing water uphill”.
Besides Baroness Shephard, the other commissioners who have resigned include Paul Gregg, professor of economic and social policy at the Bath University, and David Johnston, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation.
The mass resignation is hugely embarrassing for the Prime Minister, who began her premiership with a speech on the steps of Downing Street pledging to tackle the “burning injustices” that hold back the poor and non-white people.
She declared “the mission of the government I lead” would be to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.
But Mr Milburn tells The Sunday Times: “The Prime Minister has said a lot about her desire to improve social mobility. Talking the talk is all very well, but you also need to walk the walk.
“I see precisely no chance of making progress. They are so concerned with Brexit that there is no bandwidth to focus on any of this stuff.”
Mr Milburn says the Government needs to do more to tackle “the fault lines in education”, poor wages and housing if they wanted to boost social mobility.
He warns that the people who will suffer will be precisely those voters who voted for Brexit and harboured legitimate grievances about their life chances.
Responding to the resignations, Labour’s shadow minister for the Cabinet office Jon Trickett MP said: “As inequality has grown under the Tories, social mobility has totally stalled. Theresa May has rewarded the rich whilst holding everyone else back. It is no surprise the whole Social Mobility Commission has resigned in frustration.
“Under the Tories, how well people do in life is still based on class background rather than on talent or effort.
“Labour will change our country so it works for the many not the few.”
The resignations are said to come after a standoff between the Government and the commission over support for its work.
Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, is said to have been fighting to see Mr Milburn’s term of office extended, but Downing Street refused to commit.