Chancellor Rishi Sunak will on Wednesday attempt to quell a rebellion by Conservative MPs over his plan to cut billions of pounds from Britain’s overseas aid budget by claiming the move will only be “temporary”.
He will say that the government’s “goal” remains to spend 0.7 per cent of UK gross domestic product on overseas aid — a target currently enshrined in law — and that it will be met when economic circumstances allow.
Mr Sunak will use his spending review to announce proposals to cut the aid budget of about £13bn a year because of the coronavirus crisis: a reduction to 0.5 per cent of GDP would save about £4bn a year.
But Tory MPs are mobilising to oppose the cut, which would breach a commitment in the Conservative party’s 2019 election manifesto.
MPs fear that once Britain breaks the legal lock on spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid, it will not be restored.
“Colleagues are very angry,” said one MP, while another claimed Boris Johnson’s 80-seat House of Commons majority could be threatened. “If they do it, the gloves will come off,” said a former minister.
Ruth Davidson, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, wrote in The Times: “He knows that 80 is only a big majority until 40 MPs refuse to balance the books on the back of the world’s poor.”
“The Britain I know and love does not turn its back on such people — whatever our challenges at home,” tweeted Jeremy Hunt, former Tory foreign secretary.
David Cameron and Tony Blair, former prime ministers, and Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, have also opposed a cut in the overseas aid budget.
Mr Sunak is seeking legal advice on whether he needs legislation to override the 2015 international development act, which commits Britain to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid.
The legislation cites grounds including “economic circumstances”, “fiscal circumstances” and “circumstances arising outside the United Kingdom” as reasons why the target can be missed.
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT's live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.
Mr Sunak’s dilemma is that if he wants to break the 0.7 per cent target for multiple years — officials said that was the chancellor’s intention — then new legislation could be required, with the possibility of a political fight with MPs and peers.
It is, however, a fight, the chancellor seems ready to take on and some Conservative opponents of his plan said they may struggle to rally the 40 rebels needed to overturn Mr Johnson’s Commons majority.
Mr Sunak’s allies said the move to cut the overseas aid budget would be “popular” with voters; opinion polls suggest they would prefer money to be spent closer to home.
The savings would cover the £4bn a year of extra cash earmarked by Mr Sunak last week for the Ministry of Defence.
One Conservative MP representing a former Labour “red wall” constituency said voters disliked the idea of their money being spent in the developing world. “It’s a nightmare reminding them that the policy exists,” added the MP.
Britain is the only G7 country to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid. In 2019 France spent 0.44 per cent, Canada 0.27 per cent and the US 0.16 per cent.
Tom Tugendhat, Tory chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said he would support a temporary cut in the overseas aid budget but questioned the need to pass legislation.
“Coronavirus is putting extraordinary strains on our public finances and so a temporary cut in foreign aid is understandable,” he said.
“But there is no need to pass legislation and risk making it permanent. The current law explicitly allows variation to the 0.7 per cent target in circumstances such as these and the soft power of aid is one of our biggest assets abroad.”
Labour leader Keir Starmer urged Mr Johnson to change tack and stick to his Tory manifesto promise on overseas aid.
“He must know that if he breaks it, that will not only undermine public trust, but hugely weaken us on the global stage,” he said.
Downing Street said: “The UK is — and will continue to be — one of the biggest contributors to aid. But it's important to look at where savings can be made and make sure that aid is used effectively.”
Get alerts on UK politics & policy when a new story is published