Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have seen off a Tory revolt over cuts to aid funding, leaving charities angry at the prospect of an indefinite reduction in spending.
Former prime minister Theresa May, one of 24 Tories to join opposition parties in voting against the cut, warned that some of the world’s poorest people will die as a result of the decision to slash spending on overseas aid.
But MPs backed a plan put forward by Mr Sunak that will see the commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid restored only when the public finances improve.
Critics of the move warned there was no guarantee the conditions set by the Chancellor would ever be met.
MPs voted by 333 to 298, a majority of 35, to back the reduction in aid funding from 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to 0.5% – a cut equivalent to around £4.4 billion this year.
The Prime Minister opened the crunch Commons debate on the decision, saying the UK’s public finances are under a “greater strain than ever before in peacetime history” and “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 Mrs May – rebelling for the first time in her parliamentary career – said the cut meant the Government “turns its back on the poorest in the world”.
“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.
The commitment to 0.7% is written in law and 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 around £10 billion will be spent on aid this year.
If MPs had voted to reverse the change, around £16.2 billion would have been spent in 2022, with Mr Sunak warning that could mean higher taxes or cuts to domestic spending.
Under the new system, funding will only return to 0.7% 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 Sunak said: “Whilst not every member felt able to vote for the Government’s compromise, the substantive matter of whether we remain committed to the 0.7% target – not just now but for decades to come – is clearly a point of significant unity in this House.
“Today’s vote has made that commitment more secure for the long term whilst helping the Government to fix the problems with our public finances and continue to deliver for our constituents today.”
The existing OBR 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, one of the rebel ringleaders, said: “It is quite possible these conditions will never be met.”
The Government was “trashing our international reputation”, he said, 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”.
Mr Mitchell said 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.
“Anyone who thinks this is not affecting our party’s reputation is living in cloud cuckoo land,” he said.
“There is an unpleasant odour wafting out from under my party’s front door.”
The Tory rebels also included former Cabinet ministers Karen Bradley, Stephen Crabb, David Davis, Damian Green and Jeremy Hunt.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “Cutting aid to help the world’s poorest during a pandemic is callous – and not in our national interest.
“Boris Johnson is damaging Britain’s reputation around the world.”
The vote was met with a furious reaction from aid organisations.
Oxfam GB chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah said the vote was a “disaster for the world’s poorest people” and the Government “is putting politics above the lives of the 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.”
The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, the Church of England’s lead bishop for international development, said: “It is a matter of some concern that the criteria which the Government has now set out for a return to 0.7% are so stringent that it risks making permanent rather than temporary the reduction in our overseas development.”
Mike Adamson, chief executive of the British Red Cross, said: “Humanitarian needs are soaring, created by a mix of Covid, climate and conflict.
“This exacerbates an already devastating reality for millions of people in need of urgent assistance.”
The commitment to 0.7% was written into law when David Cameron was prime minister.
Mr Cameron said he was “sorry and saddened” by the Commons vote, adding: “I maintain that the cut to international development spending is a grave mistake.
“When we committed in 2013 to spend 0.7% of GNI on international development, the UK made a promise to care; to act; to lead.”
Fellow former Tory prime minister Sir John Major said the decision to go against the manifesto pledge on aid was the “stamp of Little England, not Great Britain”.
Sir John said: “The Government has blatantly broken its word and should be ashamed of its decision.”