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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.