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20 September 2016

Dfid officials are worried about Priti Patel, but it’s Brexit they should be frightened of

Officials worried about the Secretary of State for International Development may have other things to be anxious about soon.

By Stephen Bush

It’s fair to say that the arrival of Priti Patel in the Department for International Development was not the subject of universal celebration among its staff, or among people working in development in the United Kingdom more generally. 

Not just because of Patel’s starring role on behalf of Vote Leave, although Dfid is probably the most pro-Remain department on Whitehall (which, in any case, was pretty pro-Remain), but because of her long record of scepticism towards international development and aid spending.

Suspicions were further heightened following the arrival of Robert Oxley, formerly head of media at Vote Leave and before that the Taxpayers’ Alliance, and thus on record on multiple occasions castigating “wasteful spending” at the department and elsewhere, as Patel’s special adviser.

Suspicion towards the new boss and her aide has only been bolstered by a series of bad news stories about spending at the department, which, some officials believe, have been deliberately leaked by the new boss to soften the ground for reductions in Dfid’s spending commitments.

But senior sources close to the Secretary of State have dismissed those rumours as a “conspiracy theory”, with others saying that the level of institutional suspicion towards terms like “value for money”, shows that the development sector has a thin skin for criticism and is averse to scrutiny. They point to her commitment to maintaining Britain’s 0.7 per cent aid target as evidence of her commitment to maintaining, not dismantling Dfid.

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In any case, there is no chance that a vote to repeal the 0.7 per cent commitment would pass the House of Commons, let alone the Lords, although officials at the department believe that they will be an increasing elasticity in terms of aid spending, with the 0.7 per cent increasingly shared out between Dfid, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence.

However, relationships between officials at Dfid and their new boss are likely to remain cool for some time. But the bigger threat to aid spending isn’t in its new Secretary of State – but in the fraught negotiations over Brexit.

With the Visegrad Four – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland – all confirming they will veto any deal that restricts the free movement of their citizens, a deal that maintains what you might call the “two poles” of Britain’s Brexit negotiations looks tricky. (Those two poles: border control on one hand, and good access to the single market on the other.)

As I’ve written before, one of the reasons why talking about staying in the European Union and “reforming free movement” is a non-starter is that there is no deal you could strike at a European level that wouldn’t be vetoed by either a member of the Visegrad Four or another of the 2004-era accession countries.

However, there is some hope at a senior level in the government that outside, you could effectively “pay to play” – not just to Brussels, but through targeted aid to the countries who have the most to lose out through giving Britain good access to the single market while allowing stricter border control. Far from facing budget cuts, Dfid could emerge as a much more significant player in Whitehall in the coming years. 

It may be that Dfid officials who are fretting about Priti Patel have other things to worry about very soon.