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11 February 2019

On foreign aid, Boris Johnson is appealing to a Tory party that doesn’t exist

The former foreign secretary is out of touch with his party and wrong on the policy.  

By Richard Darlington

Boris Johnson is backing a multi-billion pound cut to the aid budget, but why now? It’s not the first time Johnson has acted like a “medieval pirate whose eye has alighted on this plump Spanish galleon loaded with bullion that he wants to board and plunder it.” That was the description by former Tory development secretary Andrew Mitchell on this morning’s Today programme, before Johnson declared aid should be “spent more in line with Britain’s political, commercial and diplomatic interests.”

Johnson was on the show to talk about the backstop but the reason he was asked about aid was because of the publication of a report written by Tory backbencher Bob Seely. The Henry Jackson Society still haven’t published that report, but I’ve seen the version shown to journalists and on the 0.7 per cent aid commitment, it recommends “giving ourselves the freedom to spend the other 0.2 per cent of GNI on non-economic forms of international development, as defined by the UK.”

So what are “non-economic forms” of international development? And why should the UK define them, rather than use the internationally agreed OECD rules, set by all of the rich donor countries of the West? How much cash are we talking about? And most importantly, why now?

Although the Henry Jackson Society report is 28 pages long, it’s not entirely clear what it wants the United Kingdom to spend aid on instead but they are crystal clear that they want to scrap Dfid an merge it into the Foreign Office. This would be a terrible idea and is opposed by Simon Frasier, the former permanent secretary at the Foreign Office itself.

A cut of 0.2 per cent from the 0.7 per cent total would mean a 28 per cent cut to Dfid’s current programming but to be fair to the report’s authors, they do actually propose an increase in the civil servant headcount overseeing the aid budget (so much for “big government”!) and they say that humanitarian funding should be protected. So, the impact would be:

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  • At least 60,000 fewer lives would be saved by immunisation each year
  • At least 1 million fewer children would be in education each year
  • At least 140,000 fewer people would be saved from modern slavery each year
  • At least 40 million fewer people would be treated for tropical diseases each year

These are pretty modest underestimates but they give you an idea of the magnitude of this “reform” agenda.

The only question that’s left is, why now? Why, when Britain is in the middle of one of the most difficult international negotiations in our history with the EU27, would we want to tell the 30 countries of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee that their rules are wrong and that if they don’t change them, the UK will just ignore them? It’s all to do with something called “Global Britain”, which is the title of the Henry Jackson Society research programme that this latest report is part of.

It has absolutely nothing to do with Johnson’s leadership ambitions, the internal machinations of the Tory backbenches or the rules about how the party select their next leader. Because if it did, Johnson would realise that the Tory party has changed. No really, it has. There are at least 100 Tory MPs who have been Dfid ministers, have visited aid projects with NGOs, have spoken out in support of 0.7 per cent or actually voted for the original legislation. They are not just early adopter Cameroons but can be found across the various Tory tribes: Leavers and Remainers, modernisers and traditionalists, One Nation and free-marketeers.

If Boris Johnson wants to get on the ballot and be an option for Tory members to vote for, he’d do well to learn the lesson of his last failed attempt. His path to victory requires him to reach out to Tory MPs across political divides. He won’t get any more support by doubling down on cutting aid. He needs to reach out and reposition. As has been argued may times before, aid isn’t just the right thing to do, its also the smart thing to do. And that goes for both the policy – and in Boris Johnson’s unique case – the politics too.