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7 June 2021

Why the Treasury is so worried by the Tory rebellion on foreign aid cuts

Today’s vote isn’t just about international development spending – it’s a sign of many more difficult votes to come.

By Stephen Bush

Is Boris Johnson headed for defeat in the House of Commons over international development? Conservative rebels and government whips alike certainly think so.  

The instrument of the government’s possible defeat? An amendment to the new bill for establishing the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency (Aria), which would require Aria to make up any shortfall in the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target.  

The big question is: is the amendment “in scope”? For an amendment to be considered, the Speaker has to consider it to be within the view of the original bill. Think of bills as a bit like episode titles of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia: “The Gang Triggers Article 50”, “The Gang Establishes Academy Schools”, “The Gang Creates A Recall Bill”, and so on. You can’t amend a bill in a way that fundamentally changes the nature of the bill, so you can’t turn “The Gang Approves Clean Energy Research” into “The Gang Leaves the European Court of Human Rights”, for example. 

The benefit of this is that MPs can’t be ambushed by an amendment that makes a bill considerably more controversial or radical than it otherwise would be. Is the 0.7 amendment in scope? The rebels believe it is because this bill establishes Aria’s remit, but it ultimately comes down to the advice Speaker Lindsay Hoyle receives from his clerks and what he decides to do with it.  

The coalition that could defeat Johnson runs through committed supporters of the aid budget; Sinosceptics who believe that the lesson of the past decade is that when the West steps back from the developing world, China steps in, and that leaving the stage free for the Chinese government’s debt diplomacy is a disaster; through to MPs who just dislike the idea of breaking a manifesto pledge; and topped up finally with Tory MPs who simply don’t like Boris Johnson very much.  

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What’s worrying the Treasury more than anything else isn’t that it may have to find an extra £4bn in the aid budget. It’s that it can’t – with a Commons majority of 86, and with the promise of a reshuffle around the corner and a cut that is popular with a plurality of voters – be sure of winning today’s vote. It makes Treasury officials wonder: can they really be sure of delivering any of the £17bn worth of extra cuts envisaged by Rishi Sunak’s Budget? Can they hold the line on education catch-up spending, ending the Universal Credit uplift, or any of the other painful and controversial cuts they want to make? Or is today’s difficult vote a sign of many more difficult votes to come?