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.

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The economic slowdown is another reason Theresa May called an early election

The Prime Minister has gone to the country before the living standards squeeze becomes too strong.

The recession that the Treasury and others forecast would follow the EU referendum never came. But we now have the clearest evidence yet of an economic slowdown. In the first quarter of 2017, GDP grew by just 0.3 per cent, down from 0.7 per cent in the previous three months and the slowest rate since the beginning of 2016.

For individuals, growth is now almost non-existent. GDP per capita rose by 0.1 per cent, continuing the worst living standards recovery on record. As the Resolution Foundation noted, GDP per capita is just 1.7 per cent above pre-crisis levels, compared to 16.3 per cent after the '90s recession and 24.5 per cent following the '80s recession. Higher inflation (owing to the pound's depreciation) and stagnant pay are hindering Britain's main source of growth: consumption (which accounted for 100 per cent of per capita growth in 2016).

As I recently noted in my column, the economic slowdown was another reason for Theresa May to call an early general election. A renewed living standards squeeze has begun but it is too early for much political damage to result.

It was precisely to deny prime ministers the chance to call an election at the most favourable moment that many argued for the introduction of fixed-term parliaments. Labour had little choice but to constent (though some argue Jeremy Corbyn should have forced Theresa May to hold a vote of no confidence). But today's figures will be cited as evidence of why future prime ministers should not be allowed to repeat May's trick.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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