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17 May 2011

Liam Fox on aid spending: going too far and too fast

The Defence Secretary says he cannot support Cameron’s aid pledge “in its current form”.

By George Eaton

David Cameron’s pledge to raise aid spending to 0.7 per cent of gross national income by 2013 has long antagnoised his party’s MPs. For many, it is unacceptable to increase the aid budget by 34 per cent while cutting the defence budget by 7.5 per cent. Now, thanks to another leaked letter by Liam Fox, we know just how far up that discontent goes.

In the letter, which is published in today’s Times (£), Fox tells Cameron that he cannot support the 0.7 per cent pledge “in its current form”. The Defence Secretary warns that the coalition’s plan to enshrine the target in law could limit the government’s ability to “change its mind about the pace at which it reaches the target in order to direct more resources towards other activities or programmes rather than aid”.

He adds that the plan may “present risks to my department’s ability to both report certain priority activities as ODA [official development assistance] and, therefore, to receive funding for them from the Conflict Pool [sic]”. In other words, Fox is worried that his ability to raid the aid budget to pay for military programmes will be restricted.

Fox’s team has responded this morning by insisting that he “fully supports the principle of a 0.7 per cent target on international aid” but it’s clear that he takes issue with the goverrnment’s timetable for reaching it. He notes that in 2009 “the proportion of national income spent on ODA [official develpment assistance] was only 0.52 per cent”.

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For Fox, it makes no sense to ramp up aid spending by 34 per cent while cutting total departmental spending by 11.7 per cent. However, it’s worth noting that, unlike many Tory MPs, Fox does not appear to oppose the general pledge to ring-fence the aid budget.

But aside from causing further embarrassment for the Defence Secretary, what are the political consequences of this leak? Tory opponents of the 0.7 per cent plan will feel emboldened to speak out, knowing that they have an ally in the cabinet, although there is little prospect of Cameron changing course. Meanwhile, for the Lib Dems, here is another opportunity to argue that their presence in government has protected a shared progressive policy from the likes of Fox.