Boris Johnson has set himself on a collision course with scores of his MPs as No 10 suggested it would defy an order by the House of Commons speaker to bring a vote on swingeing foreign aid cuts.
Between 40 and 50 Conservative MPs were said to be considering defying the government on Monday before an ambush in the Commons was thwarted, with rebels now exploring options including legal action.
Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, said he would look at “other ways” to give MPs a binding vote on the issue – which cuts aid to some of the world’s poorest countries by 42% in the pandemic – if the government did not bring a vote itself.
On Tuesday senior figures including former prime minister Theresa May are expected to line up to condemn the cuts in an hours-long emergency debate creating embarrassment for Johnson as world leaders head to Britain this week for the G7 summit.
The prime minister faces pressure from both sides of the Atlantic, with a number of senior Democratic members of US Congress writing to President Joe Biden asking him to urge the UK to restore its foreign aid budget. Signatories including Joaquin Castro, who chairs a subcommittee on international development, who said: “Cutting back on foreign assistance during the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation only undermines our collective global response.”
However, Johnson’s government swerved a more potent embarrassment after the Speaker ruled that an amendment proposed by MPs could not be put to a binding vote. Sources said senior clerks had advised that allowing the amendment might have set a precedent to let MPs hijack budgets.
A senior rebel source said the Speaker had made it “crystal clear” the government must now bring a binding vote, though a No 10 source repeated their belief that no vote is necessary and said there are provisions in law for the aid target to fall in exceptional circumstances – in this case from 0.7% of gross national income to 0.5%, around £4bn, despite concerns about the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. No vote is expected at Tuesday’s debate.
A former minister said rebels would bring their amendment to restore the funding “at the next possible opportunity … All this does is delay the inevitable. They know we have the numbers”.
Another MP said: “We have made it very clear we will find another way. If [the chancellor Rishi] Sunak is smart, he will get up in a few weeks’ time and commit to reinstating the aid commitment next year.”
Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary coordinating efforts to restore the cuts, said the rebels would have won by a majority of at least nine MPs. Forty rebels were needed for them to win. One source close to the rebels said they believed the true majority would have been as high as 21, with some MPs also committed to abstaining.
Rebels had been planning to amend the Advanced Research and Invention bill setting up a new scientific agency but Hoyle said he had deemed the amendment was not in scope of the bill. “I hope the government will take on that challenge and give this house the due respect that it deserves,” he said. “And if not, we will then look to find other ways in which we can move forward.”
In a withering attack on the government for not bringing the matter to the house, Hoyle said he expected the government to bring a separate vote on the cuts. One former minister described it as “the hardest slap on the wrist I’ve ever seen a government get – and that includes from John Bercow [the former speaker].”
The planned rebellion was publicly backed by at least 30 Conservative MPs including May. Sources at least 20 MPs who had not gone public with their support might speak in the debate tomorrow.
Other public supporters included the former ministers Jeremy Hunt, Karen Bradley, Tobias Ellwood, Johnny Mercer and David Davis, senior backbenchers including Bob Neill and Bob Blackman, and the 2019 intake member Anthony Mangnall.
Mangnall told the Guardian a binding vote was now needed as a matter of urgency. “Parliament is sovereign and the government has now had almost six months since proposing these cuts to the poorest people in the world to convince parliament of their case,” he said.
“Instead, ministers have ignored parliament and refused to publish impact assessments of how many people will die as a result of these policy changes. Now, long-standing and senior MPs, as well as new MPs like myself, have been united in a last ditch attempt to persuade the government to do the right thing. All we are asking is that ministers follow the law.”
In the runup to the announcement by Hoyle, wavering Tory MPs were called by the prime minister and chief whip, Mark Spencer, and one Tory claimed Spencer and the Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, were applying “pressure” over the selection of the amendment.
Government sources suggested some of the signatories like May would not have wanted to follow through with a vote against the government. One key rebel figure said that was nonsense. “She’s rock solid,” the MP said.
It is understood supporters in the Lords are also examining how the issue could be brought to a vote. MPs are still taking advice on how they could bring a judicial review against the government.
Mitchell told the Commons: “The government frontbench are treating the Houses of Parliament and the Commons with disrespect. Had we secured a vote on the new clause tonight I can assure the house it would have secured the assent of the house by not less than a majority of nine and probably around 20 votes.
“In the week of British chairmanship of the G7 the government’s failure to address this issue will undisputedly mean that hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths will result. It is already attracting criticism from all round the other members of the G7.”
However, MPs had made clear they hoped to reach a compromise with the government, saying the amendment would be pulled if there was agreement to restore the 0.7% commitment in 2022.
Ministers have said the aid cut is necessary as a temporary measure – though they did not say for how long it would be in place – because of economic damage from the pandemic.
Johnson’s spokesman refused to say what personal lobbying of prospective rebels the prime minister had been doing behind the scenes. He added ministers were committed to returning to 0.7% spending levels “as soon as the fiscal situation allows”.