When David Cameron’s government enshrined in law the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income (GNI) on overseas aid, it was a symbolic moment for a party which had downgraded Whitehall’s separate aid department in the 1970s, only to see Labour restore it in 1997.
Cameron had his eye on liberal-minded voters, and specifically Liberal Democrat supporters, in a general election two months after the International Development Act became law. He won an unexpected overall majority after a below the radar Tory campaign hoovered up seats in the South West held by the party’s Lib Dem coalition “partners”.
How times change. Boris Johnson has dismantled the Department for International Development (DFID), even though it enjoyed a world-renowned reputation and was a shining example of the UK’s soft power. It has been subsumed by the Foreign Office in a way that makes it difficult for any future government to recreate. “The divisions within DFID were deliberately scattered throughout the Foreign Office to make it very hard to put the pieces back together again,” one Whitehall insider told me.
Today, Johnson’s eyes are not on wooing liberal voters but locking in his converts from Labour in the red wall, where ministers insist his plan to cut £4bn from the aid budget is hugely popular. However, Johnson has managed to unite a formidable group spanning the Tory spectrum against the decision to reduce the proportion of GNI devoted to aid to 0.5 per cent. It includes unlikely bedfellows – right-wingers such as David Davis, a long-standing critic of aid spending who believes the cut will result in deaths in poor countries in the middle of a pandemic, and his old foe Theresa May, under whom he resigned as Brexit secretary. It stretches from right-wing libertarians like Desmond Swayne to One Nation Tories like Damian Green, from Johnson’s Vote Leave allies like Tim Loughton to pro-Europeans like Jeremy Hunt.
Inevitably, Johnson loyalists are portraying this unusually large awkward squad in an unflattering light. May, toppled by her party in 2019 and succeeded by Johnson, is unfairly being compared to Edward Heath, who was dubbed “the incredible sulk” for never becoming reconciled to his successor Margaret Thatcher. Although May is also leading the charge against a shake-up of planning law to allow more housebuilding, there is another explanation for her stance on aid: she has seen its benefits round the world, like all the other living ex-prime ministers – Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Major and Cameron – who also want the cut reversed.
Ministers suspect some of the rebels enjoy seeing their name in lights but they are not natural troublemakers. Andrew Mitchell, leader of the revolt and an instinctive Tory loyalist, has also seen the benefits, as international development secretary.
Johnson’s opponents are right to argue that they are not “rebels” at all, as they are defending the 2019 Tory manifesto, which pledged: “We will proudly maintain our commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on development.” Rishi Sunak argues that this has been superseded by the government spending splurge in the pandemic. While describing the aid cut as “temporary,” he has not said how temporary and wants it to last for a second year due to the uncertain economic outlook.
The rebels are confident they have the 40-45 Tories needed to inflict what would be an embarrassing defeat for Johnson as he prepares to meet Joe Biden and chair the G7 summit in Cornwall starting on Friday. Government sources admit a knife-edge vote is likely tonight if Speaker Lindsay Hoyle calls the rebels’ amendment to the Bill to create an Advanced Research and Invention Agency.
If the vote goes ahead, Johnson does have a Plan B to avoid humiliation if Tory whips advise him a government defeat is on the cards. If he accepted the aid cut was for one year only, the Tory revolt would melt away as most of the Tory rebels would settle for that.
Whatever the procedural ruling on the proposed vote, Johnson would be wise to press the B button. At some point, the aid cut will be tested in the Commons, or in the courts, or possibly both, and he will probably lose. Far better to retreat gracefully now, and win a few brownie points from his G7 counterparts including Biden, rather than be forced into a grudging climbdown.
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