Boris Johnson faces a damaging revolt by dozens of senior Tories over his decision to cut the UK’s overseas aid spending.
Theresa May, Andrew Mitchell and David Davis are among around 30 Conservative rebels backing a move to reverse the decision to cut aid spending from the legally-enshrined 0.7% of national income.
Johnson slashed aid spending to 0.5% as the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic hit the economy. Ministers have insisted it’s only a temporary measure until the nation’s finances are repaired. But the 0.7% target is written into law. And maintaining it was a Tory manifesto commitment in 2019.
A sizeable rebellion
Former international development secretary Mitchell is leading a group of 30 MPs. They hope to use an amendment to legislation setting up the new Advanced Research and Invention Agency which would force the new body to make up the funding to the required 0.7%.
A vote on the issue could take place on Monday if Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle selects the amendment. Despite a comfortable working majority of 85, the number of Tory rebels is enough to cause nervousness in the government ranks.
Bad timing for Johnson
The issue has resurfaced at a sensitive time for Johnson. He’s hosting leaders from some of the world’s richest countries at the G7 summit in Cornwall this week.
Writing in the Guardian, Mitchell said:
The eyes of the world are truly upon us.
But in this moment Britain is found wanting, because we have removed a foundational piece of our own global leadership.
Britain is the only G7 nation cutting aid this year.
“Thousands will die”
Meanwhile former Brexit secretary David Davis chimed in on the immorality of the cut. Historically, Davis has criticised aid spending. However, he said that “doing it this way is really so harmful”. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today that the “harmful” and “devastating” cuts would result in deaths around the world. The budget cuts will mean massive cuts in efforts to provide clean water which will kill children worldwide. There will also be cuts in funding for food for starving people, where “again thousands will die”, said Davis. He added:
No other G7 country is cutting its aid in this way. It is going to have devastating consequences across the world.
He added that Germany, France and the US are leaders in spending in this area:
so we are not such a leader any more – in fact we are throwing away enormous influence, particularly in Africa, where there is an ideological battle with China.
Morally, this is a devastating thing for us to have done.
But it’s not only on moral grounds that the government plans have incurred criticism. Legally, Johnson’s government is on shaky ground:
Secondly the first duty of Parliament is to control the government expenditure. If the government carries out an illegal policy, refuses to bring it to Parliament, and ensures that we cannot amend the Budget, this is how Parliament has to exercise its authority.
— David Davis (@DavidDavisMP) June 6, 2021
Opposition support for the rebels
Labour former prime minister Gordon Brown told BBC Breakfast:
It’s a life-and-death issue, we’re actually deciding who lives and who dies, particularly at this point where if we withdraw the money for vaccination it’s the equivalent of pulling away the needle from a kid or from an adult who is sick who needs the vaccination – a 90% cut, for example, in support for polio vaccination.
Defending the decision
Solicitor general for England and Wales Lucy Frazer said the pandemic had forced the government to make “tough decisions”. She defended the decision to reduce the overseas aid budget, insisting the law did allow for the temporary reduction. She told Times Radio:
The pandemic has forced us to make tough decisions and that’s why we’ve said we’ll temporarily reduce the amount that we’ll spend.
It does say in the legislation that we commit to 0.7% but that can be varied if the fiscal or economic circumstances suggest that it should, and that is the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Even so, some 1,700 charities, academics and business leaders jointly wrote to the prime minister. They warned that the UK’s “credibility and voice on the international stage will be undermined” just as he prepares to preside over the G7 gathering. The G7 summit also includes Johnson’s first face-to-face meeting with US president Joe Biden.
The letter, with signatories including Oxfam GB and Save The Children, said the aid cuts are a “double blow” to the world’s poorest communities in the midst of a pandemic.