Rishi Sunak's spending review is already dividing opinion in the Tory party. The Chancellor has confirmed reports that he intends to go back on a Tory manifesto pledge and cut foreign aid from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent. He insisted this amounted to a one-off cut — the idea being that it will be a 'temporary' response to exceptional circumstances — and the exceptional strain on public finances as a result of coronavirus.
As the current target is written into law, the understanding is that the government will likely have to pass new laws in order to cut its overseas aid budget. This has led to fresh concern among critics of the plan that it could mark a much longer period than a year of reduced foreign aid, which is set to be slashed by £4 billion. If, as expected, this goes to a vote, it could be tight for the government.
While plenty of former prime ministers have spoken out against the plan — including David Cameron and John Major — more worrying for the government will be the large number of sitting MPs who take issue with the idea. The One Nation caucus of centrist Tories are vehemently opposed and have warned ministers that Johnson's majority of 80 could be whittled down in any vote.
By contrast there are members of the 2019 intake who support the move by Sunak — and view it as a policy that will be welcomed by voters at a time when most public sector workers are to face pay restraint. In terms of voter response, it could be good news for the government. The pollster James Johnson — a former No. 10 aide — says 80 per cent of swing Tory voters in the south and red wall voters agree that the 'government should always put needs of British people ahead of others'. The fact that Sunak announced a £4 billion 'levelling up fund' (and £4 billion is what is expected to be saved on foreign aid) ought to play into this sentiment.
So, why is Sunak keen on the idea in the first place? The increased funding for defence won support in the Treasury on the condition there would be reductions elsewhere. This is in part because the defence budget has the potential to be used for development across the world. Sunak used his statement at the despatch box to insist that there were lots of ways the UK could play a positive role on the world stage. But this measure is also because the Chancellor does not believe current spending is sustainable. Therefore it's important to start to show fiscal restraint in some areas. The question is, will the Tory party wear it?