Aid-memoir: Government spared potential embarrassment over vote on foreign aid

By Tim Le Couilliard

Foreign aid spending, an evergreen issue for the Conservative party, has once again reared its head. The government is set to reduce its spending on aid from 0.7% of GDP, to 0.5% of GDP, as they deem it an excessive expense following the Coronavirus’ impact on the economy. Suggesting that it would be reinstated in the future, once the economy has recovered, the government points to the fact it has spent £100bn on the furlough scheme – “charity at home” – and that the saving of £4bn on foreign aid would be a welcome break as it begins to regain control of government spending and borrowing.

Beyond the financial saving that the government will headline this story with, it also knows that reducing aid spending is popular with voters. YouGov recently found that 66% of the general population would support a reduction, with just 18% wishing for a rise. Among Conservative voters, 92% would support a reduction, with 89% of those who voted to “leave” back in 2016 also supportive. Gone are the days when former Prime Minister David Cameron would embrace aid spending as a badge of honour – appealing to liberal, home-county voters he needed to target. For Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, the key battlegrounds have now moved to the fabled “red-wall” and former Labour heartlands, such as Hartlepool. The Conservatives will also know that reducing the spend on foreign aid will certainly not damage their chances of winning the Batley and Spen by-election next month, which despite being Labour held since 1997, the Conservatives are bookies favourite to win, comfortably.

The government has today been challenged by at least 30 dissenting Conservative backbenchers who wished to add an amendment to the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (ARIA Bill) – a planned new law to set up a new agency designed to come up with “innovative policy”. It would oblige the agency to make up any shortfall in aid spending if the government were to miss the 0.7% target.

The proposed amendment would have effectively banned such a move to reduce spending. 30 Conservative MPs have openly stated their intentions, with the promise of more in the wings had the amendment been added to the order paper. With a government majority of over 80, the rebels were at the very least close to the number they need to embarrass the government – with Downing Street insiders admitting the vote would have been on a “knife-edge” and would need strong whipping. Boris Johnson should treat today as an “aid”-mémoire that his majority isn’t insuperable…

Even as an unsuccessful rebellion, the government should be concerned by the calibre of dissenting backbenchers today, including the likes of Theresa May (former PM), Andrew Mitchell (former international Development Secretary), Sir Peter Bottomley (Father of the House), Jeremy Hunt (former Foreign Sectary), David Davis (former Brexit Secretary) and many other high profile Tories (who can broadly be described as “High-Tories”, several of whom held roles in the David Cameron era). Far from being the “awkward squad” that some groups (ie the ERG) can be seen as, these are centre-right, one-nation Tories that appeal to much of the traditional conservative voter base. Of course, given the clear polling that Conservative voters are keen to reduce aid, this as an isolated issue will be considered an acceptable political risk by the government – although they will not wish to have too many conflicts with such esteemed colleagues.

The main issue that this group opines is in reducing the UK’s soft power abroad, which foreign aid is a key metric, doubts will be cast over the UK’s intention re “Global Britain”. Especially in the week that the UK is wishing to showcase its ambition in hosting the G7 in Cornwall, this has bad optics. With international aid also able to be tied to climate change targets and something that can be used to encourage developing nations to act sustainably, the UK is limiting its ability to promote its progressive climate targets. David Davis, an inconsistent figure on foreign aid, has been particularly vocal on this point and has accused the government of “throwing away” its global influence, which would have “devastating consequences across the world”. Davis has set this against concern against the backdrop that China will exert greater influence across Africa, noting that very often foreign aid from China comes with major strings attached, both political and economic.

To put today’s debate into perspective, the UK, even when reducing spending to a 0.5% target, would still be a leading contributor to aid – both by GDP and in amount – and will still far outstrip all of the G7 and EU, except for the US and Germany. Downing Street has also been keen to point out that when the donation of coronavirus vaccines is taken into account, aid spending is likely to far exceed the 0.5%. This will do little for those who accuse the government of championing a race to the bottom, however.

There had been an ongoing game today of “will it – won’t it” as to whether the amendment in question (to be attached to the ARIA Bill) would even be called to vote. Clerks who give guidance to the Speaker on amendments, had suggested that the amendment is “completely out of scope” and that it should not be called out. Ultimately it was the choice of Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, although he was unlikely to go against guidance from his clerks. He is not, after all, John Bercow, who would rather enjoy frustrating the government in such a way – Hoyle had promised, upon his election to Speaker, that any advice he went against he would provide a written statement explaining his decision. Ultimately the amendment wasn’t called, but it wasn’t far off embarrassing the government – in what could have been Boris Johnson’s first parliamentary defeat. Hoyle has, however, called on the government to move a motion in future, allowing the House a decision on the 0.7% foreign aid commitment.