Tory revolt sees public support slipping for the move
Question: When is the law not the law? Answer: Basically, when the government says so. Or so it appears. Despite a failed bid by a group of Tory rebels and opposition MPs to force a Commons vote on reversing a £4bn cut to the overseas aid budget, and despite Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle demanding the government give the House the “respect it deserves” by finding a way to offer members a vote on the issue, No 10 has said there are “no plans” for any such vote.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman argued that the cut, from 0.7% to 0.5% of national income, was allowed under existing aid laws. However, the government has acted without changing the 2015 law that made the 0.7% target binding. Ministers claim the earlier legislation allows the target to be temporarily missed in exceptional circumstances, and that the Covid pandemic counts in this way. But at the recent G7 summit, the UK was the only country cutting foreign aid, with the others maintaining or increasing the 0.7% target. The fall to 0.5% also breaks the 2019 general election Tory manifesto pledge to keep to the higher figure.
The Tory MPs’ revolt was led by Andrew Mitchell, a former international development secretary, who accused the Prime Minister of an “unethical and unlawful betrayal” and claimed that despite their 80-strong majority, the government would be defeated by up to twenty in any vote. He said opponents included sixteen former ministers, eight Commons committee chairs, twelve privy councillors, every living former prime minister and every former leader of a major party. Amongst the rebels was Johnson’s predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May, who said the decision would have a devastating effect on the world’s poorest and damage the UK. She said the cuts meant an 80% reduction in the global fund to end modern slavery and that organisations would be forced to go cap-in-hand to other governments to make up the shortfall.
Treasury Minister Steve Barclay said the cuts were intended to be temporary and had been forced on the government by “a hugely difficult economic and fiscal situation”. Confirming that he would defy the demand for a vote, the Prime Minister later described objections as “lefty propaganda”, prompting SNP Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, to comment, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard the previous prime minister being called a lefty propagandist.”
What our surveys show
The Parliamentary revolt by leading Tories appears to have prompted a small shift in public opinion on the government decision to cut foreign aid. When Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the plan back in November, there were angry and disappointed voices raised on both sides of the House. We ran a survey in February and then the proposal seemed overall to chime with the electorate, with a small majority, 54%, agreeing that foreign aid should be decreased. However, there were significant differences between generational groups, as in the youngest group just 23% of the overall figure concurred with the Chancellor, while 82% of the oldest group agreed.
Returning to overall numbers, only 19% felt foreign aid should be increased and 16% thought it should stay the same. The final 10% said they didn’t know. In our latest survey there has been some movement in opinions. The number now agreeing with cuts has dropped below the majority, albeit only slightly, to 49%, while those in favour of an increase in aid has risen to 22%, and those for it staying the same has gone to 19%. The “don’t know” replies remain at 10%.