Boris Johnson faces a damaging revolt by dozens of senior Tories over his decision to cut the UK’s aid spending.
The Prime Minister’s predecessor Theresa May and former Cabinet ministers Andrew Mitchell and David Davis are among Conservative rebels backing a move to reverse the decision to cut spending on aid from the legally-enshrined 0.7% of national income.
Mr Johnson slashed aid spending to 0.5% of national income as the coronavirus pandemic hit the economy, but ministers have insisted it is only a temporary measure until the nation’s finances are repaired.
The 0.7% target is written into law and maintaining it was a Tory manifesto commitment in 2019, but cutting it will save around £4 billion.
Around 30 Tory MPs, led by former international development secretary Mr Mitchell, are hoping to use an amendment to legislation setting up the Advanced Research and Invention Agency to force the new body to make up the funding to meet the 0.7% goal.
A vote on the issue could take place on Monday if the amendment is selected by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, with the number of Tory rebels enough to cause nervousness in the Government ranks despite a comfortable working majority of 85.
The issue has resurfaced at a sensitive time for Mr Johnson, who hosts leaders from some of the world’s richest countries at the G7 summit in Cornwall this week.
Mr Mitchell said the amendment was a bid to ensure Mr Johnson could travel to Cornwall to meet his G7 counterparts on Friday as “first among equals”.
Writing in the Guardian, Mr 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.”
Former Brexit secretary Mr Davis told BBC Radio 4’s Today that the “harmful” and “devastating” cuts would result in deaths around the world.
There will be massive cuts in efforts to provide clean water, which will kill children worldwide, and in funding for food for starving people, where “again thousands will die”, Mr Davis told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He said: “No other G7 country is cutting its aid in this way. It is going to have devastating consequences across the world.
“Historically, I am a critic of aid spending, but doing it this way is really so harmful.”
He said that Germany, France and the US are leaders in spending in this area, adding “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”.
Mr Davis told the programme: “Morally, this is a devastating thing for us to have done.”
The Tory rebels are supported by opposition parties, with shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy telling Sky News: “It would be in the Prime Minister’s interests if they just admitted they got this one wrong and move on, and started focusing on the G7, which is really important.”
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.”
There were suggestions that Commons clerks have advised the amendment is “out of scope” of the Bill, but Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle was yet to make a decision on its selection.
“We don’t comment on the selection of amendments before a decision is made – and no decision has been made,” Sir Lindsay’s spokeswoman said.
Solicitor General for England and Wales Lucy Frazer said the pandemic had forced the Government to make “tough decisions” as she defended the decision to reduce the overseas aid budget, insisting the law did allow for the temporary reduction.
“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,” she told Times Radio.
“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.”
Some 1,700 charities, academics and business leaders jointly wrote to the Prime Minister to warn that the UK’s “credibility and voice on the international stage will be undermined” just as he prepares to preside over the G7 gathering, which will include his 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.