Johnson defends cut to aid spending as he braces for Tory revolt

Boris Johnson defended his controversial cut to the aid budget as he faced a damaging Tory revolt in the Commons.

The Prime Minister opened a debate on the decision to cut funding for official development assistance (ODA) from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%.

He 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.”

But his predecessor Theresa May said she would rebel for the first time, telling MPs the cut meant the Government “turns its back on the poorest in the world”.

The commitment to 0.7% is written in law and was restated in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, but was ditched as the Government attempted to save money in response to the economic carnage caused by coronavirus.

The 0.5% level means £10 billion will be spent on aid this year, about £4 billion less than if the original commitment had been kept.

UK aid
The cut will mean around £4 billion less being spent on aid (Stefan Wermuth/PA)

Despite his comfortable working majority of at least 83, Mr Johnson knows he faces a substantial rebellion in a vote which he was pressured into calling by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

Former prime minister Mrs May and ex-international development secretary Andrew Mitchell are among prominent opponents of the cut.

But a group of would-be rebels have backed a “compromise” put forward by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, which sets out tests for restoring the 0.7% level.

The funding will only 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.

Mr Johnson told MPs “we all believe in the principle that aid can transform lives” and voting for the Government’s motion “will provide certainty for our aid budget and an affordable path back to 0.7% while also allowing for investment in other priorities, including the NHS, schools and the police”.

“As soon as circumstances allow and the tests are met, we will return to the target that unites us,” he insisted.

Mrs May said the Chancellor has indicated to her it could be four or five years before the target was reinstated under the conditions imposed by the tests.

“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,” the former prime minister said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer 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.

Mr Mitchell warned his Tory colleagues not to be “hoodwinked” by Mr Sunak’s statement on the conditions for the return to 0.7%, arguing it was a “fiscal trap”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is, frankly, staggering that the only cut the Government has made is to spending to help the poorest people on the planet in the middle of a pandemic, when this amounts to approximately 1% of the borrowing on Covid in the last year.”

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Mr Mitchell said he would rebel, telling Times Radio: “I think I’ve only rebelled against my own party and government about three times in the 34 years since I was first elected to the House of Commons, but I shall do so today with conviction and with enthusiasm, because I think it’s the most terrible thing to break our promise.”

Tory MP for Thanet Sir Roger Gale said: “I shall vote today to honour our election pledge, uphold the law and restore our overseas aid spending to just 0.7% of a reduced gross national income.”

The Government has said a defeat on the motion on Tuesday would result in a return to 0.7% spending in 2022, with Mr Sunak warning that would be likely to have “consequences for the fiscal situation, including for taxation and current public spending plans”.

Tory former Cabinet minister Dame Andrea Leadsom, writing in the Daily Telegraph, backed the “compromise” put forward by the Treasury.

“By working together to develop this compromise, I’m confident that we can move forward and focus on the overwhelmingly positive action we take in supporting the world’s most vulnerable,” she said.

Former foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said he wants reassurance that there will be a return to 0.7% spending in a “reasonable timetable”.

He told Times Radio: “We do need to reverse this cut to the foreign aid budget.

“I want to look at what the Government’s alternative is, before finally deciding. The thing I want to understand – which I’m not clear about – is when this means we will return (to 0.7%).”