Writing exclusively in today’s Evening Standard in the wake of the Budget, Conservative grandee Sir Edward Leigh accused Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak of slashing overseas development cash at exactly the wrong time.
“Aid spent now represents excellent value for money,” he writes, citing evidence that every pound spent on Covid vaccinations in the Third World will generate £54 in return.
As PAC chair for nine years Sir Edward was Parliament’s chief watchdog of waste in public spending, so his verdict on the effectiveness of aid funding will be heeded by many Conservative MPs.
Sir Edward is also a standard bearer of the Thatcherite old guard – proving that the Chancellor’s plan to flout a legally-binding target to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas development has united Tory left and right in anger.
A senior MP close to the rebellion today indicated that the Tory rebels have amassed enough votes to defeat the Government in the Commons, saying: “There are simply too many of us opposing this now.”
On Monday, the Evening Standard revealed exclusively that the Government was about to cut aid to the Yemen by over 50 per cent. That decision was criticised by Tory MPs and was denounced at Prime Minister’s Questions by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford.
The uproar continued in the House of Lords where Conservative former overseas development minister Baroness Chalker said to cheers of support in the chamber: “We really need to look at this again.”
Today, Andrew Mitchell, the former International Development Secretary who is leading efforts to persuade Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak to back down, said: “The Government have had a chance to hear the genuine and powerful views on their own benches against breaking the 0.7 promise, on which we were all elected just over a year ago. Surely now is the right time to reconsider.”
Mr Mitchell added: “We are the only G7 country cutting aid in the year that we host the G7 summit. We are already seeing the deadly consequences of cutting life-saving humanitarian support and the Government has given no foreign policy justification.”
Mr Sunak last year announced that he intends to cut £4 billion from the aid budget. Almost £3 billion more is being lost to aid because of the fall in GDP, which the target is linked to.
However, the cuts are expected to go to a full Commons vote because the 0.7 target was written into law by David Cameron’s government.
A senior Conservative MP close to the rebellion leaders told the Standard Mr Johnson could lose. “With the Opposition MPs having such clear manifesto commitments on 0.7 per cent, the Government can’t rely on them abstaining to get this policy through.
“It’s going to get harder to justify, the closer we get to the G7 summit in June, and the more details that will emerge about the cuts, the more bad press it’s going to create. It won’t go away.”
Speaking at PMQs on Wednesday, the Prime Minster claimed the aid cuts had public support. He said: “I think the people of this country will think we’ve got our priorities right.”
Labour MPs suspect Mr Johnson has calculated they will abstain to avoid upsetting voters who are suffering in the pandemic and do not want to send money abroad. But Sir Keir used his six questions to focus on the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and called for a Commons vote on the Government’s “manifesto-breaking cuts”.
Sir Keir challenged: “They should at least put that to a vote in this House. Will he have the courage to do so?”
The PM replied: “We’re going to get on with our agenda of delivering for the people of this country and spending more than virtually any other country in the world, spending more than virtually any other country in the G7 on aid.
“It’s a record of which this country can be proud. Given the difficulties that this country faces, I think the people of this country will think we’ve got our priorities right.”
Mr Blackford said 16.2 million people were at risk of starvation in the Yemen. “The UK Government’s response isn’t one of compassion, instead it’s to impose cuts.”
The interventions of the two Opposition leaders suggest that their parties would not abstain in a Commons vote.