How evasion and incompetence led to ill-timed UK aid row

Within a lengthy profile of Boris Johnson published this week in the US-based Atlantic magazine, the prime minister explained: “The point I’m trying to get over to you and your readers is that you mustn’t mistake this government for being some sort of bunch of xenophobes or autarkic economic nationalists.”

The interview was a bit of pitch-rolling to endear himself to the new liberal occupant of the White House and create distance from his erstwhile ally Donald Trump. Unfortunately for Johnson, other stories running about the prime minister in the international media on the same day told a different story.

“UK PM party rebels prepare to challenge aid cuts,” said AP. AFP had “UK’s Johnson faces aid cut rebellion on eve of G7”, while the New Statesman had: “Members of US Congress speak out against Britain’s foreign aid cuts.”

The headline-grabbing rebellion by Johnson’s MPs now looks set to run over two days. How, at the start of the week of the G7 summit in Cornwall – Britain’s pre-eminent moment of global leadership since Brexit – could Johnson’s government manage to construct such a launchpad? It is a story in part of rank incompetence and evasion, but it is also about a prime minister who seeks to appeal to two sharply different constituencies at once, and who too often cannot see the contradiction.

The blame also lies in part with the ever charming – but now under fire from some quarters – chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who last autumn overruled the Foreign Office and decided immediately after its merger with the Department for International Development to remove the commitment enshrined in law and the Tory manifesto to continue spending 0.7% of gross national income on aid. By cutting the target to 0.5%, £4bn would be saved in 2021 – loose change in the context of the deficit.

Dismissing the foreign aid budget as a great cashpoint in the sky, Johnson played to his chosen gallery – and few of them are subscribers to the Atlantic.

The former Tory international development secretary Rory Stewart, no ally of Johnson’s, said it would be wrong to think there was any deep meaning to these cuts, just raw politics. “Many Conservatives do not like spending money on foreigners,” he admitted.

But then things started to unravel. Initially the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, seemed to accept that the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Act 2015 required the decision to end the 0.7% target to be put to parliament. He told MPs on 26 November: “We have taken advice very carefully on this, and it is very clear that if we cannot see a path back to 0.7% in the foreseeable, immediate future, and we cannot plan for that, then the legislation would require us to change it.”

Some 193 days later, the government has not set out a path back to 0.7%, but no legislation has been offered.

A legal opinion provided by Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, in March broadened the point. He said the International Development Act gave ministers no latitude to miss the target deliberately, as it “admits of no exception and leaves no ambiguity. Properly understood, the secretary of state’s decision is contrary to the clear expressed intention of parliament.” A minister only had discretion in how the target was met in any calendar year, Lord Macdonald said.

This opinion, released in March, clearly opened the path to a judicial review, but Tory rebels felt the legal route was expensive and unlikely to produce a definitive ruling for many months. If the government would not bring the issue to the Commons, Andrew Mitchell, a former chief whip and international development secretary, always felt the best solution lay in stoking unrest in the Conservative party and biding his time.

Five former prime ministers, attuned unlike Johnson to what Britain’s aid budget does for the UK’s international reputation, came to Mitchell’s side.

From March onwards, the Foreign Office seemed unable to stem the steady drip of stories, from Yemen to Myanmar, about the impact of the aid cuts. Aid charities, past masters at weaving stories of deprivation, left the government flat-footed. Nevertheless, by the middle of last month there was a sense that the government had ridden out the storm. Mitchell ruefully spoke of going to the G7 itself to raise the issue’s profile.

He admits he could not believe his good fortune when the government foolishly timetabled the report stage of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) bill for the start of the week of the G7. He finally had the legislative vehicle for which he had been waiting. Mitchell did all he could to shoehorn the 0.7% issue into the bill, but he did not satisfy the clerks. But Johnson’s reprieve may prove temporary.

More importantly, the publicity in the runup to the vote has been enough to train a spotlight back on a prime minister now being openly accused by fellow Tory MPs – Brexiters and not – of “sending hundreds of thousands to their deaths”.

In his Atlantic article, Johnson also said politics “is all about the narrative”. Doubtless no G7 leader would dare criticise him in public, but the G7 – the rich man’s club – is on the back foot with Africa for hoarding the world’s vaccines. The sight of the chair of the G7 grappling with his own party to cut overseas aid is hardly the narrative they want as they try to convince the world of their generosity.


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