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25 July 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:26am

Cabinet audit: What does the appointment of Alok Sharma as International Development Secretary mean for policy?

By Anoosh Chakelian

The former employment minister Alok Sharma, MP for Reading West since 2010, backed Remain ahead of the referendum but helped out in Boris Johnson’s leadership preparations. According to Politico, he played the part of Jeremy Hunt in preparatory mock-debates.

Once a place where politicians would be put out to pasture, Dfid has become something of a stepping stone for some – with previous incumbents Penny Mordaunt moving up to become defence secretary (since sacked by Johnson), and Priti Patel promoted to Home Secretary (via a sacking-in-disgrace by May).

The role is a strange one in a minority government, as foreign trips are kept brief and less frequent because of the need to be present to vote, meaning Sharma will struggle to get stuck into the work.

Another challenge will be the hostility to Dfid around the cabinet table. Johnson himself has said he thinks it should be merged back into the Foreign Office, and that aid should “do more to serve the political and commercial interests” of the UK – views that will find sympathy among fellow cabinet members, not least Patel, who had called for Dfid to be scrapped and replaced with a trade department.

Within Dfid itself, there hasn’t been much sign of a looming merger, however, and Patel never pushed for it when she was at the helm. Whitehall restructures are messy and expensive, and May received a lot of stick when she shifted things around and created new departments (most obviously the Department for Exiting the European Union) upon becoming PM.

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It’s also not that easy for the UK to redefine aid. The definition of aid is set out by the OECD’s development assistance committee. Plus, the International Development Act makes it illegal to tie aid to trade, and it’d be difficult to find a majority in this parliament for repealing the commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on international development.

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