It says something for the persuasive powers of former international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, that he mustered enough potential votes to inflict defeat on Boris Johnson’s government, if only his amendment had been permitted and a vote had been held.
Mitchell’s consolation prize, awarded by the Speaker in recognition of the strength of feeling in the Commons, is an emergency debate on what would have been the substance of his amendment: to reinstate foreign aid at 0.7 per cent of GDP from next year, rather than the reduction to 0.5 per cent that was set in the Budget.
The rift this row has exposed among Conservative MPs could embarrass the Prime Minister as he prepares to host G7 leaders in Cornwall. But how damaging will this first serious rebellion of the Johnson premiership really be?
Not as damaging, I suggest, as Mitchell and his supporters in politics, the NGO world and sections of the media would like it to be. Just because all former prime ministers, a former lord chancellor, and several dozen great and good Tory MPs happen to agree on something – in this case, the supposed iniquity of the aid cut – does not make them right.
From a strictly legal point of view, the 'temporary' reduction in foreign aid may be questionable without a Commons vote, even though it was effectively passed in the Budget last March. But does a government really not have the discretion to adjust a statutory provision at a time of national belt-tightening that has been necessitated by forces outside its control?
That is a question that may – like Johnson’s ill-fated attempt to prorogue parliament at the height of the Brexit stalemate – eventually be decided in court. The eight year-old decision to fix the aid budget in law looks even more of a folly now than it did.
Yes, the UK likes to think of itself as a generous country. And the 0.7 per cent figure, which met a UN target and placed this country among the more generous international aid donors, fed into that self-regard. But enthusiasm for foreign aid has been flagging – around two-thirds of those asked in opinion polls regularly want it cut – and the pandemic could have made it even less popular had it not been trimmed. Politically, the decision – temporary or not – is justifiable.
Indeed, a victory for Mitchell and his cohorts now would risk the opening of a breach between Parliament and people akin to the gulf over Brexit when Theresa May was prime minister.
A majority of MPs – with their adequate salaries and pensions – might argue that the UK’s national honour as an aid donor needed to be upheld, that maintaining the aid budget was 'the right thing to do'. They might also say – as Mitchell argued in response to the Speaker’s decision – that the planned reduction could entail 'hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths'.
But good luck in selling that to the country at large. All right, so MPs are considered delegates, rather than representatives, elected to make their own judgements. But should they be so heedless of public opinion, especially at a time of national crisis?
That said, of course, the aid budget has suffered a double blow, as both GDP – thanks to the pandemic – and the proportion of it allocated to aid have both declined. But opponents of the cuts want it both ways.
On the one hand, they argue that the reduction – which amounts to around £4bn or so, leaving, according to the Government, £10bn, is huge. On the other, that, compared with the money being shovelled out by the Chancellor in the wake of the pandemic, the sums are tiny, so why make any aid cuts at all?
To which, looking at it from the perspective of most people, rather than Parliament, I would answer that while some of the cuts may indeed be ill-advised and damaging, others – such as the slashing of the aid budget for China – seem overdue.
What is more, I find it hard to dredge up a great deal of sympathy for the aid sector. That is, first, because I see the levels of pressing need all around in this country that have been everywhere exacerbated by the pandemic. And second, because, from Andrew Mitchell himself to the heads of mega-charities, such as Oxfam, Save the Children and the rest, the aid advocates are still trying to tug at our heartstrings with all the familiar cliches.
As always, at times of stress, they put emotion before reason. The themes are chosen to appeal to our current sensitivities. It’s all about 'the most vulnerable', about women and children, and girls going to school, and clean water.
These are all admirable causes, of course. But how many girls will no longer be able to go to school? How many abused women will be deprived of refuges? How many wells will be polluted, dry up or not be dug, all because of cuts in UK aid?
I am all for girls being educated and everyone having access to clean water. But if governments themselves do not make girls’ education or clean water a priority, how long will the impact of projects mounted by foreigners with foreign funding endure?
An even more cynical view might be that in at least some of its other foreign endeavours – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya come to mind – UK policy has effectively thwarted the very aims it is trying to advance with its aid policy, with the loss of many lives.
Let’s protect emergency and disaster relief at all costs. But I have never felt the same about development aid since the first time I visited a Bond conference, Bond being the UK-based umbrella organisation for NGOs working in the sector.
Over the nearly 20 years of its existence, Bond has ballooned from a membership of 60 to 400 organisations, big and small. The scale, the money, the power and the interests that are represented at its gatherings are way beyond anything most people would associate with a charitable venture. This is big, big business, with much of the money coming either from self-interested commerce (which is fine, if it does some good) or, directly or indirectly, from rich countries’ governments.
And there are risks here. One, as shown by the sex exploitation scandals at Oxfam and elsewhere, is that governments can find themselves tainted by association.
Another is that the aid organisations grow dependent – and fat – on taxpayers’ largesse, with fieldwork with, and for, 'the most vulnerable' having to take its place alongside political lobbying and the bureaucracy to support successful grant applications.
Stop and think for a moment. What have the charities been saying in recent weeks? Where have they turned to in their hour of need?
Their complaints and their pleas have all been addressed to government. Why have they not instead been making their case to the public and asking us to help make up their cash shortfall?
That this is not the course they have chosen might testify to a lost connection – and another reason, perhaps, why so many UK voters are less than enamoured with the cause of foreign aid.