Boris Johnson avoids defeat on £4bn foreign aid cut after Theresa May chastises 'broken' promises

Credit: PA

Boris Johnson has avoided an embarrassing defeat on his cut to foreign aid, despite a Tory rebellion which included former prime minister Theresa May. 

The government won the motion, which if defeated could have seen the cut to foreign aid spending reversed, by 35 votes.

Mr Johnson defended his controversial cut to the aid budget as he faced a damaging revolt from his own MPs in the Commons.

Carl Dinnen reports on the fury felt by some Tory MPs over the cut

The prime minister opened a debate on the decision to cut funding for official development assistance (ODA) from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%.

He said the UK’s public finances are under a "greater strain than ever before in peacetime history" adding "every pound we spend on aid has to be borrowed and, in fact, represents not our money but money that we’re taking from future generations."

Mr Johnson's predecessor Theresa May said she would vote against the motion telling MPs the government was breaking a "promise to the poorest people in the world".

Former prime minister Theresa May chastises the government for the cut

She added the impact of cuts would mean "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."

The commitment to 0.7% is written in law and was restated in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, but was ditched as the government attempted to save money in response to the economic damage caused by coronavirus.

The 0.5% level means £10 billion will be spent on aid this year, about £4 billion less than if the original commitment had been kept.

How much damage will the rebellion do to Boris Johnson?

Mr Johnson has a comfortable working majority of at least 83 MPs in the Commons, meaning he suffered a substantial rebellion in the vote which he was pressured into calling by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle.

Former prime minister Ms May and ex-international development secretary Andrew Mitchell were among prominent opponents of the cut.

But a group of would-be rebels backed a “compromise” put forward by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, which sets out tests for restoring the 0.7% level.

Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell is one of the prominent opponents of the cut. Credit: PA

The funding will only be returned to the promised level if the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) believes the UK is not borrowing to finance day-to-day spending and underlying debt is falling.

Mr Johnson told MPs "we all believe in the principle that aid can transform lives” and voting for the government’s motion "will provide certainty for our aid budget and an affordable path back to 0.7% while also allowing for investment in other priorities, including the NHS, schools and the police".

"As soon as circumstances allow and the tests are met, we will return to the target that unites us," he insisted.

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Ms May said the chancellor has indicated to her it could be four or five years before the target was reinstated under the conditions imposed by the tests.

"This isn’t about palaces for dictators and vanity projects, it’s about what cuts to funding mean – that 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,” the former PM said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the cut reduced UK influence around the world.

"We are the only G7 country which is cutting our aid budget," he said.

"That is not the vision of global Britain we want to see on these benches and I don’t think it’s the vision of global Britain that many on the opposite benches want to see either."

He warned the chancellor’s tests would lead to an "indefinite cut" to aid spending and accused the prime minister of a "typically slippery" approach.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said the decision was "appalling" and the government was "trying to wriggle out of commitments they’ve made to have a proper vote on this issue and allow MPs to have their say."

"A really short-sighted decision from the government"

"It's not just morally wrong, we’re the only G7 country to cut aid in the middle of a pandemic, but it is so self-defeating and not in Britain’s national interest," she told ITV News.

"These are programmes that help fund research programmes to deal with Covid, that help fund healthcare systems in other countries when we know that getting the vaccine out to every corner of the globe is a major national priority.

"This is a really short-sighted decision from the government and it is a shabby way to treat Conservative MPs who’ve made the case for why aid matters in good faith".

Mr Mitchell warned his colleagues not to be “hoodwinked” by Mr Sunak’s statement on the conditions for the return to 0.7%, arguing it was a “fiscal trap”.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is, frankly, staggering that the only cut the government has made is to spending to help the poorest people on the planet in the middle of a pandemic, when this amounts to approximately 1% of the borrowing on Covid in the last year.”

Mr Mitchell said he would rebel, telling Times Radio: “I think I’ve only rebelled against my own party and government about three times in the 34 years since I was first elected to the House of Commons, but I shall do so today with conviction and with enthusiasm, because I think it’s the most terrible thing to break our promise.”

The government had said a defeat on the motion on Tuesday would result in a return to 0.7% spending in 2022, with Mr Sunak warning that would be likely to have “consequences for the fiscal situation, including for taxation and current public spending plans”.