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The right's next target: foreign aid

The same crew that brought you Brexit now has a different target.

Christmas doesn’t officially end until Twelfth Night (or 5 January for those of you celebrating Winterval), but the season of goodwill comes to an abrupt end on the front of today’s Mail.

“Queue here for UK's £1bn foreign aid cashpoint” is their splash, with a picture of mostly swarthy men queuing. The revelation, such as it is, is that some of British aid money is being given directly as ATM cards with money, and that the amount has increased from £53m in 2005 to an annual average of £219m in the years since 2011.

There is a lot to unpick here, not least that, as readers with long memories will know, it was only last month that the Mail was complaining that Britain’s foreign aid wasn’t going directly to the world’s poorest but was instead being funneled through consultancies.

But what’s important to note is this: the reason why the amount that UK plc gives as direct cash has gone up is that a 2011 review by Dfid into what made the most effective use of aid spending found that cash transfers were among the most useful tools – a finding backed up by a series of studies at Princetonthe ODI, and a number of organisations and institutions.

Increasing the amount given in cash transfers was a personal project of Andrew Mitchell when he came into the department in 2010 and, if Priti Patel is serious about getting more value for money overseas, will likely be a big part of her project too.

But there’s another force at work here. Whatever you think about the Brexit vote, you cannot deny that it helped the cause of Leave that the Brexiteers had fought a non-stop campaign against the European Union since at least the signing of the Maastricht Treaty and arguably since Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech.

Now that same coalition – the Mail, the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Conservative right – is gearing up to do the same to foreign aid. As with Brexit, the supporters of the status quo don’t even agree on what their best XI is, let alone have them anywhere close to the pitch. The attack on international development is going to be a big part of British politics in 2017, assuming that Donald Trump doesn’t kill us all in nuclear fire. Its defenders have got a job of work to do.

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

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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