Boris Johnson has seen off a Conservative backbench revolt over a cut in the UK's international aid budget, winning a Commons motion in favour of the cut by 333 votes to 298. Twenty-four Conservative MPs voted against the government, among them former prime minister Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt, Mr Johnson's rival for the party leadership two years ago.
All five living former prime ministers voiced opposition to the aid cut, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury and other religious leaders. Mrs May said she was voting against a Conservative government for the first time because to support the cut would be in breach of a manifesto promise and would hurt some of the world’s poorest people.
“This isn’t about palaces for dictators and vanity projects. It’s about what cuts to funding mean. Fewer girls will be educated, more boys and girls will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in world will die,” she said.
“I have been in this house for nearly a quarter of a century. During that time I have never voted against a three-line whip from my party. As prime minister I suffered at the hands of rebels, I know what it is like to see party colleagues voting against their government. We made a promise to the poorest people in the world, the government has broken that promise. This motion means that promise may be broken for years to come. With deep regret, I will vote against the motion today.”
The 2015 Conservative manifesto included a commitment to honour the government's obligation under the 2015 International Development Act to spend at least 0.7 per cent of gross domestic income (GNI) on overseas aid. But chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak said earlier this year that the cost of the coronavirus crisis meant the target must be temporarily reduced to 0.5 per cent of GNI, saving £4 billion a year.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote the chancellor persuaded 14 Conservative rebels to change their minds when he promised the cut would be reversed when the independent Office for Budget Responsibility confirms the government is no longer borrowing for day-to-day spending and when underlying debt is falling.
But Labour leader Keir Starmer said that under current OBR projections, the conditions would not be met until 2024-2025 at the earliest.
“Anyone voting tonight, pretending to themselves it will temporary, they are not looking at the facts,” he said. “What the chancellor is setting out today isn’t a temporary cut to overseas aid – it is an indefinite cut.”
Andrew Mitchell, a former Conservative international development secretary, warned his party that the decision to cut the aid budget could alienate the kind of moderate voters who turned to the Liberal Democrats in last month's byelection in Chesham and Amersham.
“It took us 23 years – until 2015 – to achieve an overall majority by wiping out the Liberal Democrat seats, and to achieve it we secured the support of decent, internationalist, pro-development spending people, who saw from our time of austerity that we would stand by this promise. There is an unpleasant odour wafting out from under my party’s front door. This is not who we are. This is not what global Britain is,” he said.