During the recent Budget, Chancellor Rishi Sunak made it clear that the Government would do what it needed to weather the economic crisis caused by Covid. To help pay for the extension to the furlough scheme and money for levelling up, it was one seemingly minor spending cut that nevertheless proved to be a lightning rod for controversy – cutting foreign aid funding to 0.4% of GDP.
Three months later, the issue of the UK’s foreign aid budget has once again emerged to split the Conservative Party. So far, thirty Conservative MPs, including former PM Theresa May, have pledged to rebel against the Government and restore aid spending to 0.7% of GDP, by tabling an amendment to a separate law establishing a new science agency. As well as May, the rebellion has attracted heavy hitters and former cabinet ministers like Jeremy Hunt, Damian Green, and Andrew Mitchell. Mitchell, as the ringleader of the group, has said that he is confident of securing the 45 Conservative votes needed to win the vote.
But talk is cheap and rebels will always talk up their chances. Will the Government view this attempt to turn back the clock seriously? The effort is led by the frontbench of a bygone age, the Cameron and May era ministers who have few links to the Red Wall, where the Government looks to today. And, despite broadsheet and Twitter opinions, cutting foreign aid usually polls extremely well. In a Government obsessed with public opinion over elite opinion, that is what matters most. Putting down a rebellion aimed at upping the foreign aid budget probably isn’t how they want to spend their time – but it is much easier fight than one over free school meals or education funding.
Whoever comes off worse in this fight, there will be little won and little lost. The cut to 0.4% was brought in as a temporary measure, and even a defeat – this Government’s first in the Commons – will not put it on the ropes. There is no comeback expected from the Damian Greens and Stephen Crabbs of the Conservative Party. The Government will move on.
Timing is everything however, and this rebellion is gathering steam as representatives from the G7 are due to fly into Britain next week. As the Chair of the group, Britain has an opportunity to show leadership on the world stage. With headlines reporting on attempts to thwart aid to the poorest countries in the world, at a time when many are facing unprecedented hardships from Covid, Britain’s reputation in international affairs will be somewhat tarnished.
The Government has long boasted that the G7 and COP26 later this year are crucial in building post-Brexit Britain’s global status. Whether it can make the most of these opportunities remains to be seen, but cutting the foreign aid budget is perhaps not the best place to start.