Prime minister Boris Johnson has won parliamentary backing for the plan to reduce the UK government’s spending on foreign aid form 0.7% to 0.5% of national income despite a rebellion by Conservative MPs.
The Commons voted by 333 to 298 to approve the reduction, which the prime minister said had to be made because the country is facing an “economic hurricane” and a deep recession following the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking after the vote, chancellor Rishi Sunak said that the government will now move forwards with the reduction in aid spending.
The pledge breaks a Conservative manifesto commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on foreign aid, but as part of the vote the government said it was committed to restoring the target when the economic picture improves.
Despite the pledge, 24 Conservative MPs still rebelled, including former prime minister Theresa May who said that the move would lead to more children ending up in slavery, as well as more deaths of the very poorest.
Of the rebels, 13 had been former secretaries of state or ministers. They included former secretary of state for international development, Andrew Mitchell, Brexit secretary David Davis, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, former work and pensions secretary, Stephen Crabb, and former first secretary of state, Damian Green. Former prime minister David Cameron also condemned the decision.
MPs had been asked to vote for what the government described as a compromise agreement, where there is a reduction in spending to the aid spend from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income (GNI), but it will be restored when two economic tests are met. These are when the Office for Budget Responsibility confirms the government is no longer borrowing for day to day spending, and when debt is falling.
May, who said she would break the party whip for the first time since she was elected in 1997, said the “government is turning its back on some of the poorest in the world”.
“With GNI falling, our funding for aid was reducing in any case," May said.
“It’s about what cuts to funding mean,” she said. “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.”
Sunak had spoken to May last night, and she told the Commons that he suggested the 0.7% could return in four to five years’ time, but it could be even sooner.
But May was unconvinced. “I certainly doubt whether the tests will be met in five years’ time,” she said.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the motion being proposed by the government was “deliberately slippery” and he believes the new 0.5% level would carry on indefinitely.
"Every living prime minister thinks this is wrong. Only one who is prepared to do this, and he is sitting there," he told the Commons.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak reportedly spoke with potential dissenters about the pledge to restore the 0.7% target, with fourteen Tories signing a joint letter to say they were satisfied by Sunak’s compromise.
Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke, the UK Head of Delegation to the NATO Assembly was among the signatories.
“There’s been an intelligent compromise which I think is a sensible way forward," he told CSW’s sister title PoliticsHome.
"This shows that when we do 0.7%, it shows we are capable of spending it.
"As soon as I heard that [Sunak] was putting a formula in place I was very comfortable."
Another potential rebel, Desmond Swayne, who signed the letter to say he now backed the chancellor, told PoliticsHome he was picking his battles to focus on a restrain on spending overall.
"It would be wrong for me to vote to restore the budget if I am not prepared to identify a corresponding cut or tax increase in lieu," he said. "The government has moved significantly on this.”
Opening the debate this afternoon, Johnson told the Commons that the plan was an “affordable path back to 0.7%.
“As soon as circumstances allow and the tests are met, we will return to the target that unites us,” he said.
The government said it is still spending £10bn on foreign aid this year.
Kate Proctor is the political editor of PoliticsHome and The House magazine, where a version of this story first appeared.