The problem with Cameron's plan to raid the aid budget to pay for defence

If the aid budget becomes a means of plugging the shortfall in defence spending, aid campaigners will feel they have been misled.

Perhaps no position David Cameron has adopted is more unpopular with Conservative MPs than his decision to increase aid spending while cutting defence. The former is rising by 37 per cent in real-terms, while the latter is falling by 7.5 per cent. And the trend is set to continue. Having once assured his party that defence spending would increase from 2015, Cameron now makes it clear that the department will not be protected from cuts in this summer's Spending Review. With the ever-more hawkish Prime Minister talking of a "generational struggle" against African jihadism, Tory MPs and armed forces chiefs understandably ask how he expects to wage this campaign on a shrinking budget. 

But his Cameron now found a way of squaring this circle? Speaking to reporters on the final day of his Indian trip, the PM suggested that aid spending could be used to fund peacekeeping and other defence-related projects. He said: 

We have to demonstrate that the aid budget is being used wisely.

We should be thinking very carefully about how we help states that have been riven by conflict and war. I think it’s obviously true that if you can help deliver security and help provide stability then that is the base from which all development can proceed.

He added: "Can we do more, can we build on this approach? I am very open to ideas like that." Early estimates suggest that around £100m a year could be could be diverted from the Department for International Development to the Ministry of Defence. 

Downing Street is keen to emphasise that the spending would be compliant with international aid rules and would not be used to fund combat missions or equipment. "You can be sure that we are not going to use this money to buy any tanks," one source tells the Guardian.

But there are at least two problems with this approach. The first is that it will free up resources for precisely this kind of combat expenditure. Using the DFID budget to pay for "nice" defence spending leaves the MoD with more for "nasty" defence spending. Those aid campaigners who have applauded the government's plan to meet its pledge to spend 0.7 per cent of GNI on international development are uncomfortable with the thought that the money could be used to indirectly subsidise armed interventions. The second is that it sets what many view as a negative precedent. What is a £100m now could become far more later. If the aid budget becomes a means of plugging the shortfall in defence spending, the PM will be seen to have broken the spirit, if not the letter, of that 0.7 per cent pledge. 

David Cameron meets British soldiers based at Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.