Perhaps one of the least palatable new hires for Whitehall bods is Priti Patel, semi-promoted from cabinet-attending Employment Minister to International Development Secretary. The right winger is known for being on the neo-Thatcherite vanguard of the party characterised by the provocative 2012 treatise Britannia Unchained, which she co-authored – championing free market economics and a smaller state. So having her at the helm of any department would legitimately give civil servants the jitters.
But Dfid, though one of the less political departments, is a particularly controversial charge for Patel. In 2013, she suggested to the Daily Telegraph that it should be scrapped in favour of a more trade-focused department, calling for, “the consideration to replace Dfid with a Department for International Trade and Development in order to enable the UK to focus on enhancing trade with the developing world and seek out new investment opportunities in the global race. It is possible to bring more prosperity to the developing world and enable greater wealth transfers to be made from the UK by fostering greater trade and private sector investment opportunities.”
The International Development Act makes it illegal to tie aid to trade, so Patel will find it tough to pursue her ideological aims. But there are things she can do to change the tone and focus of the Department; her initial statement upon taking the job emphasises “working across government, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the new Department for International Trade, the Home Office and others”.
She could even advocate for repealing David Cameron’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on development, which was enshrined in law last year. Although it is unlikely she would try this, removing the ring fence on the Dfid budget might actually become a tempting prospect for the rest of government, which is set to become even more cash-strapped as a result of Brexit.
We can only hope that Dfid’s ability to keep its ministers out of the political fray, and regularly travelling overseas, will curb this threat.