Boris Johnson sees off Tory rebellion over cuts to foreign aid

13 July 2021, 16:11 | Updated: 14 July 2021, 06:09

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Boris Johnson has seen off a rebellion by Conservative MPs over the Government's cut to spending on overseas aid.

MPs voted by a majority of 35 to back reducing overseas aid spending to 0.5% of gross national income.

Critics have warned the cut, which amounts to £4.4bn, could mean spending never returns to its target of 0.7%.

It has been strongly opposed members of both parties, including four previous prime ministers.

The 0.7% level is written in law and was a commitment in the 2019 Conservative manifesto.

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But, following a three-hour debate opened by the Prime Minister, the Government won Tuesday's vote by 333 votes to 298.

Mr Johnson said the UK’s public finances are under a "greater strain than ever before in peacetime history", adding: "Every pound we spend on aid has to be borrowed and, in fact, represents not our money but money that we’re taking from future generations."

Fomer PM Theresa May said the cut meant the Government "turns its back on the poorest in the world".

She said: "This isn’t about palaces for dictators and vanity projects, it’s about what cuts to funding mean – that fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die."

Some would-be rebels were won over by a compromise put forward by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, which sets out tests for restoring the 0.7% level.

The funding will be returned to the promised level if the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) believes the UK is not borrowing to finance day-to-day spending and underlying debt is falling.

"As soon as circumstances allow and the tests are met, we will return to the target that unites us," Mr Johnson insisted.

Under the tests, aid spending might not return to 0.7% before the next general election, scheduled for 2024.

The existing forecasts run to 2025/26 and in no year is the current budget forecast to be in surplus, while net debt is not forecast to start to fall until 2024/25.

Conservative former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell said the conditions to restore funding had only been met once in the last 20 years.

Mr Mitchell, one of the rebel ringleaders, said the plan put forward by the Treasury was "no compromise at all" but instead "a fiscal trap for the unwary".

"It is quite possible these conditions will never be met," he said.

The Government was “trashing our international reputation” and the measure would have an “enormous impact on our role in the world and above all on the huge number of people who will be very severely damaged, maimed, often blinded and, indeed, die as a result of these cuts”.

He warned Mr Johnson that the cut in aid spending was damaging the Tories’ chances in seats such as Chesham and Amersham, where the Liberal Democrats scored a by-election victory in June.

"There is an unpleasant odour wafting out from under my party’s front door," he said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also said the cut reduced UK influence around the world.

"We are the only G7 country which is cutting our aid budget," he said.

"That is not the vision of global Britain we want to see on these benches and I don’t think it’s the vision of global Britain that many on the opposite benches want to see either."

He warned the Chancellor’s tests would lead to an "indefinite cut" to aid spending and accused the Prime Minister of a "typically slippery" approach.

The vote was met with a furious reaction from aid organisations.

Oxfam GB chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah said it was a "disaster for the world’s poorest people" and the Government "is putting politics above the lives of world’s most vulnerable communities".

Romilly Greenhill, UK director of the anti-poverty One Campaign, said: "Today’s result is a needless retreat from the world stage, enforced by the Treasury, at the exact moment the UK should be showing leadership and stepping up to the greatest global crises in our lifetimes.

"It’s akin to cutting the RAF during the Battle of Britain."